Diocese Reassigned Priest It Knew Had Been Accused of Sexual Abuse
The Rev. Normand J. Demers Was Quickly Asked to Leave a Haitian Orphanage Where He Was Accused of Improper Conduct in 1989

By Jonathan D. Rockoff
Providence Journal-Bulletin
April 19, 2002

The bishop and auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Providence were told in 1989 that the Rev. Normand J. Demers, who was suspended last month because of a sex-assault complaint, had been accused of inappropriate behavior with boys.

The next year, after Father Demers took a leave of absence, the bishop reassigned him to another parish in the diocese, St. Martha Church in East Providence.

The complaints about Father Demers were raised in 1989 by boys at an orphanage in Haiti. The boys complained that Father Demers, who had founded the orphanage, would touch them inappropriately, according to the orphanage and its director at the time.

They complained that he would require them to come to his bedroom alone, strip in front of him and try on clothing that he was giving out, according to the orphanage and the former director. And they complained Father Demers was too explicit when teaching about sex and health.

The Most Rev. Louis E. Gelineau, then the bishop of Providence, and the Most Rev. Kenneth A. Angell, then the auxiliary bishop of Providence, were told of the allegations against Father Demers at the time.

Although the orphanage quickly asked Father Demers to resign, he continued to minister for the Providence diocese.

Father Demers worked at St. Martha Church until late last month, when the diocese suspended him after receiving a letter from an unidentified man who accused the priest of sexually assaulting him while a boy some 35 years ago at Fatima Hospital, where Father Demers was chaplain.

Father Demers has denied the accusation "categorically and without reservation."

The attorney general's office is investigating that man's allegations, and William G. Halpin, the spokesman for the diocese, said it is also looking into the accusations made in Haiti.

In 1989, Father Demers was cleared by Haitian authorities, the diocese said, and he was never charged in Rhode Island.

"It's frustrating having all of this come up again after so many years," Father Demers, 69, said Wednesday in a brief telephone interview. "Those were investigated, and I was cleared."

THE ALLEGATIONS in Haiti involve The Haitian Project, a nonprofit organization that Demers helped establish in 1986 to aid poor boys. Outside Port-au-Prince, the project started as an orphanage and then added a school.

The diocese, The Haitian Project and Theresa Fox, who oversaw the project in Haiti in 1989 and 1990, discussed the allegations in interviews during the last two weeks.

The president of The Haitian Project emphasized that it acted immediately to protect the children it serves. Fox, who also stressed the project did all it could, said she decided to speak out after learning of the complaint about Father Demers in East Providence.

"A teacher would have lost his or her job," said Fox, now a teacher in the Providence public schools. "But apparently for a priest, that's not enough. I'm not out to get him, but I don't like the saintly picture."

IN 1989, Fox recalled, there were a dozen boys in the orphanage and 60 children in the school.

According to Fox, boys warned each other to avoid Father Demers in the pool, and some would refuse to accept clothes from him so they wouldn't have to strip naked and try them on in his bedroom.

"There was no actual physical assault with the boys. It was just very inappropriate things he would do," Fox said.

It was also alleged that Father Demers taught sex- and health-education "in an overly explicit manner," said Patrick Moynihan, who is now the president of The Haitian Project.

After learning of the allegations in November 1989, The Haitian Project temporarily suspended Demers and barred him from its activities, Moynihan said in a statement.

The project reported the allegations to civil authorities in Haiti and Rhode Island, Moynihan said. Haitian authorities detained Demers in a jail, and the Haitian social-services agency investigated, Moynihan said.

Haitian social workers began counseling the boys - work that lasted for more than two years.

Bishop Gelineau and Auxiliary Bishop Angell were told quickly of the allegations.

Through intermediaries, the mother of a volunteer working at The Haitian Project told Bishop Gelineau on Nov. 30, 1989, the diocese said in a statement. Church officials interviewed the volunteer, the diocese said.

"No one in 1989 made any complaint to the Bishop of Providence about specific conduct, and the identities of those who might have pertinent knowledge were disclosed to the Attorney General," the diocese said in its statement.

According to Moynihan, The Haitian Project investigated the allegations, found Father Demers' behavior "inappropriate" and asked him to resign. Bishop Angell was told about all of this, Moynihan said.

Bishop Angell, who is now bishop of the Diocese of Burlington, Vt., referred questions this week to the Providence diocese.

"He really doesn't have a memory of the specifics on that case," said Gloria J. Gibson, spokeswoman for the Burlington diocese.

In February 1990, Father Demers resigned as The Haitian Project's executive director and left its board of directors. "Father Demers has had no further involvement or further affiliation," Moynihan said.

Fox said she arranged with Haitian authorities to remove Father Demers from the country so he would avoid a trial. "I just didn't want him dying in a Haitian prison," she said, so she signed a statement withdrawing the complaint against Demers. Moynihan confirmed the action.

"The deal was it would be dealt with up here," Fox added. Fox said she talked with Bishop Angell on the telephone, and Bishop Angell reassured her that the diocese would "take care of it."

Fox added: "I've been very concerned about it over all these years, wondering if I did the right thing bringing him out of the country."

The diocese said this week that it got a "document from Haitian officials indicating that the accusations were unsubstantiated." It said Father Demers resigned from St. Joseph Church in Providence for "pastoral reasons."

After a short leave of absence, the diocese said, Bishop Gelineau reassigned Father Demers as assistant pastor at St. Martha Church.

The Rev. Jude P. McGeough, pastor at St. Martha, said Father Demers never acted inappropriately at the East Providence parish. "He is a totally good man," Father McGeough said.

Father McGeough said Father Demers chose to work with older parishioners at St. Martha. "He took care of most of the older people, and I took care of most of the younger," Father McGeough said.

Last month, after the diocese suspended Father Demers, the Most Rev. Robert J. McManus, now the auxiliary bishop of Providence, spoke at St. Martha and reminded parishioners that the accused are innocent until proven guilty.

"I know very, very well that this troubling news comes as a shock to all of you, as it does to me," Bishop McManus added.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.