Bishop Removes Third Maine Priest
Pastor Accused of Sexually Abusing Minor

By Judy Harrison
Bangor Daily News (Maine)
April 29, 2002

Parishioners at St. Joseph Catholic Church wept Sunday morning as they received Communion from a bishop who told them their pastor had been removed after an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor.

The Most Rev. Michael R. Cote, auxiliary bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, informed parishioners at weekend Masses that the Rev. Leo James Michaud, 51, had been removed from his position Thursday.

Cote read from a statement for Bishop Joseph J. Gerry announcing the decision:

"It is with a heavy heart I report that I have removed Father Leo James Michaud as pastor of St. Joseph Parish, Ellsworth, Maine based on a credible report of sexual misconduct with a minor received by my office this week," Gerry's statement said. "In keeping with our policy, we are providing the person who came forward with counseling. I ask you to remember the victim in your prayers."

Michaud was accused of abusing a teen-age boy he met 25 years ago while a seminarian working at the Christian Life Center in Caribou, according to Monsignor Marc Caron, chancellor of the diocese. Caron said Sunday that the diocese had received a secondhand report of the relationship in March.

Last week, the alleged victim, who now lives out of state, reported that he had a relationship with Michaud from the ages of 16 to 19 and that it continued for a month or so after Michaud was ordained in 1977. The man agreed to accept the diocese's offer of counseling, Caron said.

There was only one credible complaint against Michaud, and it was the one that led to his dismissal, Cote said.

Michaud, who was said to be staying with unidentified members of his family, was unavailable for comment Sunday. He was the third priest in the past two months to be removed from parishes in Maine because of allegations of sexual abuse alleged to have occurred more than two decades ago.

In early March, Cote made similar announcements in St. Agatha and Madawaska when the Revs. Michael Doucette and John Audibert were removed from parishes in the St. John Valley. Ironically, Michaud worked under Audibert at the Christian Life Center when the alleged incident occurred.

Parishioners at the church where Michaud served for six years appeared stunned as they left Sunday morning Mass and displayed emotions ranging from sadness to anger upon hearing that Michaud could no longer minister.

Debra Lee of Lamoine said that four years ago Michaud saved her faith as well as her life.

"I was very ill in 1998. I'd given up hope, but Father Jim was just there for me," she said. "It was him who kept me going and helped me keep my faith. My husband and I were in dire financial straits due to my illness and he got the parish to help us. I've been a Catholic all my life and I've never had a priest quite like him. I don't want to see him just disappear."

Kathy Birdsall of Hancock, who stayed after Mass to meet informally with Cote, said later that she is not worried about the parish's future. Birdsall has been attending the Ellsworth church for 21 years.

"I understand the reasons for his removal," she said. "Of course Father Jim is very much loved and he will be missed. But this is a very, very strong parish with a lot of loving and caring people who will go on and continue to do the good work that Father Jim showed us. I do believe that God is in control and that's where I put my trust."

Ruth Wieland of Mount Desert said Michaud should be forgiven. "This happened 25 years ago," she said. "He's been doing good for the people here and we can't have him any more. I'm very sad. I've been coming here four years. Before that, I went to other churches but it didn't feel the same."

The allegation against Michaud was handled differently than those against the priests who were removed from the County parishes.

Gerry went to those parishioners and sought their views before deciding to remove them from their ministries.

But a communique issued last week after U.S. cardinals met with the pope at the Vatican recommended a "zero tolerance" policy toward sexually abusive priests. The policy is to be refined at the June meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas.

In Maine, Gerry has adopted a stance in which any priest facing a credible allegation of sexual abuse of a minor will be permanently removed from public ministry. "The necessity really arose to avoid the appearance of tolerance of abuse of any minor," Cote said.

The first announcement of the priest's removal at Saturday afternoon Mass came the same day that Gerry began running an advertisement in state newspapers assuring parishioners and the public that he was dealing with the abuse problem and outlining the steps he was taking.

In the ad, Gerry said he was "recommitting myself to taking the necessary steps to heal victims and to prevent abuse in the future."

"Once again, I urge all victims to come forward. I want to reassure you that when someone comes forward, the diocese will pay for counseling; will offer spiritual counseling; and will apologize for their pain and suffering," Gerry said in his published message.

The ad included a contact and telephone number to report abuse.

But it was Michaud and not his alleged victim who was on the minds of most parishioners Sunday morning.

Lee called the 11 a.m. Mass "the most somber" she'd ever attended. Another churchgoer said it seemed as if the priest had died rather than just left.

Unlike churches where the population is declining, St. Joseph is a growing parish in the midst of planning an addition that would connect the church and parish hall. The Ellsworth church also operates three summer mission churches, in Winter Harbor, Blue Hill and Green Lake.

Ten children are scheduled to be confirmed and receive their first Communion on Sunday. The ordination of longtime parishioner Deacon Thomas Farley, with Gerry officiating, is scheduled for May 18.

An interim priest will be announced next week, and Michaud's permanent replacement will be named July 1, Caron said Sunday. He added that the diocese will try to arrange a time in the near future when parishioners can meet with Michaud to say goodbye.

St. Joseph's former pastor is scheduled to undergo a psychological examination out of state next week.


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