Accused Priest Lashes out at District Attorney

By Steve Urbon
October 6, 2002

"Guilty until proven guilty." That's the sort of justice that awaits clergy facing sexual abuse charges, in the words of a retired Fall River priest whose name was on a list made public by Bristol County District Attorney Paul F. Walsh Jr.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Standard-Times and in written comments, the Rev. John P. Cronin, 71, lashed out at Mr. Walsh, at victims' lawyers, at the press and at diocesan officials. The latter, he maintained, are more interested in disposing of the problem than in seeking justice for the accused.

Bishop Sean P. O'Malley, said the Rev. Cronin, has done a superb job looking after the well-being of victims of clergy abuse even as he shortchanged diocesan priests.

The slightly built, gray-haired priest, wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a dark civilian suit -- he is banned from dressing in priestly garb -- had especially harsh words for Mr. Walsh, who released the names of 20 accused priests whom he cannot prosecute because the statute of limitations has expired.

"It's getting so it seems we want to go back to McCarthyism," the Rev. Cronin said. "We want to go back to lynchings. We want to go back to having cases where everybody in a totalitarian state is supposed to be telling what everybody else is doing."

Mr. Walsh's actions, he said, prompted him to speak out in self-defense -- and he said he chose The Standard-Times, in part, because it did not publish the list of names. He is the only priest on the list who has consented to an interview.

"For whatever reason, Paul Walsh thinks ... it's all right for him to just throw (the accusations) out as a bait to the public to see if some more people won't come forward, hoping that someone will come forward within the statute of limitations," the Rev. Cronin said.

He said that in the charged atmosphere surrounding the abuse scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston, priests in the Fall River Diocese are being punished all over again.

"Any system of justice in the civilized world doesn't keep heaping new penalties on same old crimes. You can't say to the guy when five years are up, 'We're going to give you five more.' It's the kind of thing that's been going on. They'll always say it's out of prudence (when) what they mean is, it's public relations purposes."

In the Rev. Cronin's case, three accusers were listed by Mr. Walsh, without details. The priest, who retired last year, said one was a woman who in 1991 approached Bishop Daniel Cronin with an accusation that as a late teenager she had had an inappropriate sexual relationship with the Rev. Cronin.

"The bishop had me in and I went to Connecticut for evaluation and so forth and was found by a psychologist and psychiatrist to be a threat to no one. There was some truth to what she was saying, not exactly as it was, but there was something there," he said without elaborating.

After evaluation in Connecticut -- "day-hopping" back and forth from Massachusetts -- and several visits to an area psychiatrist, the Rev. Cronin said, "They came back with recommendations that there's no kind of problem for any pastoral work. I'm not a pedophile."

"I went (to the psychiatrist) three or four times and he said 'There's no point in this,'" the Rev. Cronin said. For the time, he remained at his post at St. Joseph parish in North Dighton. But when the accuser approached new Bishop O'Malley, in the wake of the James Porter scandal, the bishop called the Rev. Cronin to his office.

"He told me that he was going to remove me from the parish. We argued back and forth a bit about it, but he was insistent, and so we wound up with my being in charge of the cemeteries and also in charge of sick and retired priests," he said.

Bishop Steps In

It didn't end there, however. In the mid-1990s, two more people, a man and a woman, accused the Rev. Cronin over events in the late 1950s and '60s when they were minors, he said. "There was sufficient evidence in both complaints to easily show I could not have done it," he said.

Bishop O'Malley ordered further restrictions on the Rev. Cronin's activities. He could no longer say Mass -- except when at home, alone. He could not wear his clerical collar, which caused him to avoid attending such things as wakes, where people would ask questions. "I came up with excuses all the time," said the Rev. Cronin. "To a certain extent (Paul Walsh), has taken one burden off our shoulders in trying to dodge people with excuses about why we weren't doing things," he said.

"But the real problem with (Bishop O'Malley and diocesan officials) was that even with all that information there to support my case, they wanted no part of that. They were only interested in dealing with the victims. That's been the problem all long. The presumption has always been you're guilty until you're proven guilty, not until you're proven innocent.

"That's the only way to describe the methodology that's been used, unfortunately. It's not here alone. It's been in other places as well," the Rev. Cronin said.

At the time, the Rev. Cronin said he had a civil attorney, but not a canon lawyer. "If you're talking about taking a priest, a canon lawyer in the diocese of Fall River, and expecting him to adequately represent another priest with the bishop, I think there's a tremendous conflict of interest there, so it's very hard."

With pressure from insurance companies to settle claims to avoid costly civil trials, the diocese left priests such as the Rev. Cronin with little recourse, he said.

"So that's generally the route most of these cases have taken, and unfortunately, some of these lawyers -- the ones who specialize in it -- know this very well. It's the easiest cases they ever have to deal with," he said.

"The likes of (attorney Roderick) MacLeish and (Mitchell) Garabedian, they know that stuff inside-out. They know that they don't have to prove a blessed thing. They will never get to the court with it. They will never have their people interrogated nor the documents that they're trying to present.

"You get something like a Geoghan or a Shanley or a few others, where it was a constant going after kid after kid after kid or something, as opposed to somebody falling into something, that's a totally different thing, but that's where the publicity is and somehow the picture is given that all these cases are that way.

"There are no distinctions, whatever happened to them, whether the allegations are true or false, and they have no way of knowing whether they're true. There's no effort at all at. The main thing is, they want peace and quiet, and that's what's come back to haunt them."

"They should have forced lawyers representing complainants to go to trial," the Rev. Cronin said.

A Question of Rights

The Rev. Cronin's own experience as a member of a Bristol County Grand Jury in 1996 sharpened his criticism of Mr. Walsh's decision to reveal the names of priests who cannot be tried in a court of law.

"We were told by the judge we were not to say a word about anything to anyone. We were to protect the rights of the innocent and to their character by not talking about them. And we were to protect the rights of the indicted to a fair trial by not talking about what we had come to know," he said.

The district attorney's hope that more victims will step forward rankled the Rev. Cronin.

"The lawyers are going to get the names of some other people that they may be able to go chase and say, 'Hey, would you like to make some money?'" he said.

"The most self-serving statements ever made are made by lawyers carrying some of these cases. That was obvious the other day. The ones that supported Paul Walsh were the ones hoping to get more names, more money. It's so obvious it's pathetic."

The Rev. Cronin was just as emphatic about the effectiveness of Bishop O'Malley. "No one has been better for the abused persons, whether they were real or imaginary, but especially for those who happened to have really had abuse and a lot of trauma from it. No one has been more compassionate and considerate of them than the bishop has.

"The real problem has been more around the justice area, whether or not complaints were valid or not true, and what kind of system of justice was there for those who were accused," he said.

The Rev. Cronin became a priest in 1957 and served at St. Patrick's Church and St. Vincent's Home, both in Fall River, St. Bernard Church in Assonet, St. Joseph's Church in Taunton, Our Lady of Fatima Church in Swansea, and St. Joseph's Church in North Dighton. In his career, he worked extensively in the care and treatment of children at risk, about which he is proud and defiant in the face of allegations.

The publicity today, he said, "isn't impacting me in the same way it is impacting some of the men who are a bit younger. But it's still impacting me. My reputation has been destroyed by this because where there's smoke there's fire, is what's the impression, naturally. So I figure it's better for people to know the fire a little better than to have them presume it's a conflagration," he said. "So that's why I have done this."


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