Monk Cleared of Indecent Assault

By Jennifer Lucarelli
Telegram & Gazette
March 14, 2003

- An 84-year-old monk at St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer was found not guilty yesterday of fondling a woman while spiritually advising her.

A jury of five women and one man found the Rev. Joseph Chu-Cong not guilty of a single count of indecent assault and battery of a person over 14. The verdict came after just over an hour of deliberation in Western Worcester District Court.

The defense had attacked the 27-year-old woman's credibility, saying she had impersonated a nun and had an obsession with the abbey.

The woman, Keri Burnor, of North Brookfield, testified yesterday that she was studying to become a hermetic nun and began calling herself "Sister Keri."

She testified that she asked to speak with Rev. Chu-Cong on Aug. 23, 2001, about a book he wrote about spirituality and contemplation, and afterward she confessed her sins to him in a conference room in the guest house of the abbey.

She then said she stood up and gave Rev. Chu-Cong a hug, and he "moved forward in his chair," and she began to feel uncomfortable.

"I went to gather the two or three books I had brought with me, and he reached over and grabbed my left breast," she said.

In April 2002, Ms. Burnor filed a complaint against Rev. Chu-Cong with St. Joseph's Abbey.

Rev. Isaac Keeley, who was serving as the prior of the abbey, began investigating the incident.

During his testimony yesterday, Rev. Keeley said the abbey community had been having problems with Ms. Burnor because she had not taken her vows as a nun and was not a member of any church.

"She created her own habit, presenting herself as a nun -- impersonating and misrepresenting herself," he said. "She presented herself as a hermetic nun of the St. Joseph's Abbey, of which she was not a member.

"She would greet the guests that visited the abbey while wearing her habit and she would introduce herself as 'Sister Keri,' and our community is made up of monks," Rev. Keeley said. "She was impersonating a nun and would spend hours after the services inside the chapel, which primarily opened for prayer."

Ms. Burnor contended, during her testimony, that Bishop Daniel P. Reilly of the Worcester Diocese has allowed her to pursue becoming a hermetic nun under his guidance and that she does is not required to be part of a specific order.

In August 2002, after a formal complaint was filed with the state police in Auburn, Abbot Damian Carr of St. Joseph's Abbey issued a no-trespassing order to Ms. Burnor, saying she was not allowed on the property.

Ms. Burnor admitted that she had visited the abbey in a wig, hat and other disguises. The most recent visit was three weeks ago, she said.

"I couldn't stay away from the wall," said Ms. Burnor, referring to the wall that separates the visitors of the chapel from the sanctuary.

"It is a spiritual symbol of God's arm and heart -- I used to kneel there and put my head on it and kiss the wall," she added, crying. "Other people just saw it as a wall."

"I missed my wall," she said. "But now I have a picture of the wall on my own wall, so I won't be going back to the abbey."

Rev. Keeley testified that Ms. Burnor had asked for exceptions to the abbey's rules so she could form a special relationship with the abbey.

Rev. Keeley said her request to be part of the abbey was denied for two reasons.

"We don't allow outsiders to be a part of our monastery," he said. Also, Rev. Keeley said, Ms. Burnor seemed to be suffering from emotional problems.

While testifying, Ms. Burnor said other priests at the abbey had become "romantically interested" in her. "I don't want to divulge their names because I want to protect them," she said. "But I brought those concerns to the abbot as well, and nothing was done."

During his testimony, Rev. Chu-Cong said he had agreed to serve as her spiritual adviser, but only if she agreed not "to hang around the guest house" and other areas on the property where she was not welcome.

When asked if he fondled her breast, he emphatically said: "Not at all sir, not at all, not at all."

Rev. Chu-Cong said he did speak with her on Aug. 23, 2001, about spirituality and contemplative ways, but said he did not hear her confession.

"She hugged me aggressively afterwards and hung onto my neck," Rev. Chu-Cong said. "Then she gathered her one or two books and left the room."

Rev. Chu-Cong said they met accidentally three other times in the guest house. "And again she hugged me, three times," he said.

In his closing arguments, defense lawyer Thomas McEvilly said Ms. Burnor is not believable.

"She has an obsession with the abbey and the monastery," Mr. McEvilly said. "She admitted going there when she wasn't welcome and wearing disguises like a wig, hat and different clothing."

Mr. McEvilly said she desperately wanted to fulfill her needs of being part of the abbey. "She had set forth conditions that she would withdraw the allegations, but only if she could carry out the terms of her obsession by going to the abbey whenever she wanted," he said.

In his closing arguments, Assistant District Attorney Anthony J. Marotta asked the jury why Ms. Burnor would make up this story. "If she's going to make up something, she could have made up a better story," he said. "No one did anything about her being marginal mentally until five days after she filed the criminal complaint."

Judge Paul A. Losapio instructed the jury around 3 p.m. and the verdict of not guilty was read at 4 p.m.

After the verdict, Ms. Burnor declined to comment.

Rev. Keeley and Rev. Chu-Cong also declined to comment, instead deferring to Abbot Carr, who issued a statement.

"The community of St. Joseph's Abbey rejoices with Fr. Joseph Chu-Cong in the 'not guilty' verdict handed down today in his trial at the East Brookfield District Court. Jesus himself has taught, 'The truth will set you free.' Fr. Joseph, freed from burden of a false accusation, is happy to continue with his ordinary monastic life," the statement reads.

It continues, "No monk likes litigation, but this trial was the unavoidable step that had to be taken to establish Fr. Joseph's innocence of the charge brought against him. Today's 'not guilty' verdict is a necessary first step to restore to Fr. Joseph his natural, moral and civil rights to a good name."

"We invite you to join us in prayer for all persons who thirst for justice and who labor for peace in the great journey of life," the statement concludes.


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