DSS Probing Claims of Abuse by Parish Priest

By Michael P. McKinney
Providence Journal-Bulletin (Rhode Island)
September 3, 2003

SEEKONK - The preliminary findings of a state agency's investigation into whether a local priest had "inappropriate contact with minors" could go to the Bristol County district attorney's office next week.

The Rev. Hernando Herrera, who has served at Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish since 1999, is on administrative leave while the state Department of Social Services investigates the allegations, which have not been detailed.

The agency originally had 10 days from Aug. 15, the day it was notified of the case, to file its report, but DSS spokeswoman Denise Monteiro said the department received an extension. Monteiro said investigators from the department's Special Investigations Unit planned to pursue interviews yesterday and today, as people returned home after the Labor Day weekend. She said it's possible, though remote, that a report could be finished this week.

"I just don't have a sense [of when the investigation will be complete] until after they interview everybody that they felt they needed to. That may include some key players, and after that they may get some more names -- so it could very easily go into next week," Monteiro said in a phone interview yesterday. "Normally, it could be up to 10 days, but then you can have time extensions because of the circumstances, especially when you can't get in touch with the important players."

The Bristol County district attorney's office has received a written referral about the allegations from Social Services, said Asst. Dist. Atty. Gerald FitzGerald. "It's being reviewed," he said.

Since news of the investigation in mid-August, parish members have offered vocal support for Herrera and their belief that he is innocent. Herrera is also a former elementary schoolteacher with a master's degree in child psychology. Before being placed on leave, he was a parochial vicar at Mount Carmel who assisted the parish's pastor, the Rev. George Harrison.

Herrera, who started serving in the Seekonk parish in 1999, a year after his ordination, got his master's degree from Pennsylvania State University in 1991 and his bachelor's degree from the University of Virginia.

On Aug. 21, the Diocese of Fall River announced that recently installed Bishop George W. Coleman placed Herrera on leave after alleged incidents were brought to Coleman's attention on Aug. 15. That day, the diocese filed a report with the Department of Social Services, according to a Fall River diocese news release. Herrera has also been put on leave from his assignment as executive director of the Young Ministry Office.

Coleman said in a letter that was read to parishioners at Masses last weekend that it is "important that we address this issue forthrightly." According to the news release, Coleman added in his letter: "I ask your prayers for the youngsters involved, for Father Herrera, and for all who, in whatever manner, may be affected by these sad circumstances."

After state authorities finish their investigation, according to the diocese news release, the diocese's review board will "assess the matter according to diocesan policy."


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