6 Vermont Priests Face Friday Suspension

By Sam Hemingway
Burlington Free Press (Burlington, VT)
May 22, 2002

Six Vermont priests accused of molesting children years ago are still on the job 10 days after church officials said they would be put on leave while the attorney general investigates the allegations.

"We do not have any reason to believe they pose a danger," said the Rev. Wendell Searles, vicar general for the Burlington Roman Catholic diocese. "Otherwise, they would not be there."

Bishop Kenneth Angell announced May 12 the diocese would turn over all child molestation allegations to Attorney General William Sorrell. He said any priest Sorrell investigated "would be required to step down from the ministry" pending the outcome of the state probe.

Searles said the diocese's plan now calls for the six to go on administrative leave Friday. Angell was out of town and unavailable for comment Tuesday.

The six are among a group of 20 priests about whom the diocese had received child sexual molestation complaints over the years, none since the late 1980s. Of the other 14, six are retired and eight suspended from priestly duties.

Officials have declined to identify the six priests. The Burlington Free Press has learned that the group includes the Rev. Donal Ward of St. Peter Church in Vergennes and the Rev. James McShane of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Rutland.

Ward spoke of the claims against him during weekend Mass, according to parishioners who contacted the Free Press.

Tuesday, a church secretary declined comment on Ward's behalf and referred questions to his lawyer, Peter Langrock.

"My understanding is that the allegation involves an incident from some time ago that SRS investigated and totally unsubstantiated," Langrock said. SRS is Social and Rehabilitation Services, the state's child protection agency.

Langrock said the incident involved something that happened in a locker room with a boys swim team that Ward used to supervise.

"I think the incident is very open to two possible interpretations," Langrock said. "My client may have been driven into this controversy quite unfairly."

McShane, contacted in Rutland, confirmed he was under investigation by the attorney general and said he had not informed his parish about his pending leave.

"I was surprised," he said about learning he would have to go on leave. "My understanding is that it will only be for a short time." McShane declined to comment on the substance of the allegations against him.

Searles said Angell will send a letter today to each of the six priests, explaining why he is requiring them to step down from their posts during the investigation.

"Please understand that this (action) is not a presumption of guilt," the letter says in part.

"It is an administrative action taken by me for the good of the priesthood, your parish and the church in Vermont. Naturally, my hope is that your name is cleared and you will be able to return to the ministry."

Sorrell, however, declined comment on the diocese's handling of the status of the six priests while they were being investigated.

"That's solely the decision of the diocese as their employer," he said.

Likewise, Sorrell said it was not his office's job to help the diocese decide when it would be permissible to let one of the six return to the ministry.

"We're not going to do that," Sorrell said.


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