Bishop Offers Church Trials to Seven Priests

By Kathleen A. Shaw
Telegram & Gazette (Massachusetts)
November 15, 2002

Worcester — Bishop Daniel P. Reilly said last night that the seven priests he removed from ministry this year for alleged sexual misconduct will be offered a chance to be tried before a church tribunal.

The tribunal can either clear them of the charges or find that the abuse did occur.

"They are hanging out there in limbo right now," the bishop said. "In a sense, justice will be done."

Bishop Reilly, who just returned from the U.S. Catholic bishops' meeting in Washington, D.C., said the chance for accused priests to get a church trial is in the new norms adopted by the bishops during their meeting.

The church trials were mandated by the Vatican to ensure due process for accused priests. Bishop Reilly said the care of victims and protection of children "is our first concern," but he said he also believes that the accused priests should have a chance to have a trial, even if it is a church tribunal.

The bishop has removed from active ministry: the Rev. John Bagley of St. Mary Church in North Grafton; the Rev. Gerard Walsh of St. Roch Church in Oxford, who was also a state police chaplain; the Rev. Chester Devlin of St. Bernadette Church in Northboro, who was also the Respect Life director; the Rev. Peter J. Inzerillo of St. Leo Church in Leominster; the Rev. Joseph A. Coonan of St. John Church, Worcester; the Rev. Lee F. Bartlett of Sacred Heart Church, Worcester, who was a member of the Worcester Redevelopment Authority; and the Rev. Raymond P. Messier of St. Francis Church in Athol and St. Peter Church in Petersham, who was also the Athol Fire Department chaplain.

No criminal complaints have been issued against any of them, but Rev. Messier and Rev. Bartlett are defendants in civil suits brought by alleged victims.

Carmen L. Durso, a Boston lawyer representing alleged victims of Rev. Messier, said he has "given up" on believing that the church can adequately handle sexual abuse cases. He is getting ready to seek legislation to remove both the civil and criminal statutes of limitation for sexual abuse of children.

Daniel J. Shea, a Houston lawyer handling a civil suit involving alleged victims of Rev. Bartlett, said he believes the recent actions by the bishops will cause legislatures throughout the country to seek changes in their laws regarding sexual abuse of children.

The bishop said church trials will give the diocese a mechanism to act regarding accused priests, one way or the other.

"People in those parishes have been without a pastor for eight or 10 months, which is a long time, and they are wondering if they will have one and when," the bishop said.

Each accused priest will be contacted and told he has a right under canon law to a trial before the tribunal. The diocese has a tribunal that hears marriage annulments and other cases, but needs to prepare for the new type of trial, he said.

During the meeting in Washington, there was some talk among the bishops of having regional tribunals. Tribunals usually have priests trained in canon law, but many tribunals, including Worcester, use lay people, and canon law is a field now being opened to women within the Catholic church, the bishop said.

The tribunals are conducted secretly as required by the church's canon law, but the bishop said a canonical way will have to be found to make the results public in the cases of priests.

Bishop Reilly said the meeting in Dallas in June put in place the norms for helping the victims and preventing future abuse. "What we did was take into account this time the rights of the accused," he said.

The bishop said the changes adopted this week will not affect the current diocesan policy in any great way, and the work of the Office for Healing and Prevention that he recently created will go on. Services are being offered to alleged victims, he added.

"There is light at the end of the tunnel," the bishop said of the scandal that has gripped the Catholic church for the past year. He said it has been a difficult time for all concerned, but he sees some positive things being done.

The local diocese will also have to work out its plan for reporting clerical misconduct to the Vatican. The bishop said that under the new rules, bishops are required to report to Rome any credible cases of misconduct that come to their attention. The Vatican will review the cases and decide whether to send them back to the diocese for action or take direct action in Rome.

The bishop said he still has the right to temporarily remove from ministry any priest against whom a credible allegation of sexual misconduct is made, but he cannot permanently remove a priest unless the priest has a chance for "due process" through a church or civil trial.

The civil reporting requirements are still there, he said.

Massachusetts enacted a law in the past year mandating that church workers report abuse charges. He said some people have questioned what will happen in states where there is no mandated reporting.

"I don't think there are any bishops who do not want to resolve this problem," Bishop Reilly said.


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