Alleged Sexual Abuse by Fr. Jose Avila
and the Response of Sean P. O�Malley
By Terence McKiernan
July 30, 2003
A while ago, a survivor advocate named Susan Landry introduced me to a survivor out on the Cape. The story that I heard from him is an important one, especially today, and he asked me to share it with you.*
It concerns a priest named Jose Maria Bettencourt e Avila, who by my friend�s estimate abused over a hundred children in the Fall River diocese, during a 44-year career in Taunton, Fall River, East Falmouth, and New Bedford. Avila�s abuse record is common knowledge among the people of East Falmouth, and in New Bedford parishioners bravely stormed their church � it�s an old Portuguese parish with a large school � and forced the priest�s retirement at last. Fr. Jose Avila left a trail of devastation comparable to that caused by Fr. Joseph Birmingham, yet Avila is completely unknown to the public at large. He is, however, well-known to Archbishop Sean P. O�Malley and to his former colleagues in the Fall River diocese. Their decade-long silence, while victims have gone untreated and uncomforted, is a very serious issue as Sean O�Malley takes over the leadership of the Boston Archdiocese.
The survivor who has come forward about this case is the son of hardworking Portuguese farmers on the Cape. His parents were busy and not wealthy, and they trusted the Catholic church to help them raise their boy. They thought he was safe with Fr. Jose Avila at St. Anthony�s church in East Falmouth, and their son looked up to the priest � a Portuguese man, succeeding in a tough world. But Avila enticed my friend and many other kids, with rides in a speedboat and games of ping-pong and TV and plenty of alcohol. And one day Avila attacked him in the rectory and raped him. Life has been very difficult for my friend since then, and he feels he�s carrying the �guilt� of the abuse, though he knows it wasn�t his fault. The discipline that he gained during his years in the service was what saved him, he says. He�s in therapy now, for which the church is not paying. Money is not the reason he has begun to speak out.
This remarkable man has patiently described his case to me, and when I visited him in East Falmouth, he introduced me to his friends and neighbors. I met men who had been propositioned by Avila when they were children. I heard stories of suicides and depression and broken homes, all because of this priest. The history of Avila and his partner Gilbert Simoes, against whom there are six known allegations of abuse, appears to be an open secret among the people of East Falmouth.
These two priests worked at a total of seven [now known to be eight] parishes, from the early 1930s through the late 1980s, leaving destruction in their wake. Yet Avila is buried in an honorary �Clergy Burial Grounds� behind St. Anthony�s in East Falmouth, and an identical gravestone waits for Simoes. Between their graves and the church, my friends� parents and other victims are buried.
When my friend retired a few years ago, he took the very difficult step of going to the Barnstable DA about Avila. In a month, the DA�s office phoned my friend and told him that someone else had previously filed a rape charge against the same priest. My friend was told that the statute of limitations prevented the DA from pursuing the case, but it was some comfort that another victim had come forward.
In July 2002, my friend wrote to Sean O�Malley and met once with Sr. Arlene McNamee. She invited him to start therapy, and asked him whether the diocese should set up an office and have other East Falmouth victims come in. My friend told her that he didn�t think the victims in the Portuguese community of East Falmouth would respond well to her approach. To his knowledge, the Fall River diocese let the matter drop after that one conversation.
On September 26, 2002, Bristol DA Paul Walsh published the names of 21 accused priests, including Avila (with his name misspelled) and Simoes. Walsh spoke about ending the silence, and how justice delayed was justice denied. Sean O�Malley�s office responded that the bishop had followed his own procedures well. O�Malley is supposed to be a good administrator. It is simply not credible that he commissioned no briefing on Avila and the other abusers in 1992 or 1993, as he struggled to contain the Porter crisis.
Indeed, the service records of other Fall River priests with allegations suggest that such an internal review did occur. It would have been especially urgent in the case of Simoes, who began his career under the future Cardinal Medeiros, when Medeiros was chancellor of the Fall River diocese and pastor of a parish with a large school.
It is time now to release the diocesan files on every Fall River priest who abused children and vulnerable adults. It�s time to bring justice and dignity to the Portuguese community and to everyone who has suffered because of these priests. We�re told that O�Malley is a healer. Let him finish that job openly in Fall River, and then begin it in Boston.
* This speech was given on behalf of an East Falmouth victim of Fr. Jose Maria Bettencourt e Avila. Terence McKiernan of Survivors First and BishopAccountability.org presented it on July 30, 2003 in Boston, when Sean P. O�Malley was installed as the new archbishop there. Allegations regarding Jose Avila and Gilbert Simoes were confirmed by the Bristol County District Attorney on September 26, 2002. This speech corrects and supplements that announcement.
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