A soon-to-be-released report nearly a year in the making could shed light on decades of sexual abuse by clergy in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield and forever change how one of its most influential bishops is viewed.
Last July, retired Superior Court Judge Peter A. Velis was asked by Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct made against the late Bishop Christopher J. Weldon dating back to the early 1960s. The report is expected to be released before Rozanski is installed as Archbishop of St. Louis on Aug. 25.
The findings will impact not only the alleged victim — who reiterated to Rozanski a year ago his claim that he was sexually abused as a boy by Weldon and two diocesan priests — but also questions that continue to linger around how early in time the diocesan hierarchy may have participated in, covered up and enabled clergy sexual abuse of minors. It could either encourage or discourage other alleged survivors of clergy sex abuse to continue to come forward.
Weldon’s 27 years as Springfield’s fourth bishop, starting in 1950, were influential ones in the growth of the diocese. However, they also have emerged as ones during which many allegations of sexual abuse by clergy occurred — as well as the murder of an altar boy in which a former priest, Richard R. Lavigne, remains the only publicly identified suspect.
Weldon has been alleged to have interfered with investigations into that murder. There have been reports that those in the diocesan hierarchy with ties to Weldon — and had sexual abuse allegations made against them — destroyed files related to pedophile priests over the years.
Diocesan lawyers have denied any such documents were destroyed.
The Weldon accuser’s appearance before the diocesan review board was the first-time that testimony before the board involved the name of the diocese’s fourth bishop, but not the first time Weldon’s name had been linked to abuse.
After the alleged victim met last summer with Rozanski, the diocese said that a “careful review of its files” revealed “two prior instances when Weldon’s name was part of either a lawsuit or complaint received directly by the diocese.” However, the diocese said “neither was deemed credible.”
Velis’ report is expected to make recommendations on how the diocese can improve how it addresses claims of sexual misconduct that a 10-member task force appointed by Rozanski in recent months will review.
In announcing that Velis would undertake the investigation last year, Rozanski called the retired judge “a truly objective person who will investigate the Bishop Weldon matter thoroughly.”
It was Velis who in 2003 ordered the release of documents filed in the investigation of Lavigne in the brutal 1972 killing of 13-year-old Daniel Croteau of Chicopee. The state Appeals Court overturned Velis’ ruling only to have the Supreme Judicial Court uphold it in 2004,
The diocese, which is paying Velis, has said his “complete report will be released” and that he has been “provided access to whatever he needed.”
Greenfield-based attorney John J. Stobierski, who litigated and negotiated more than five dozen clergy sexual abuse cases with settlements totaling more than $10 million but no longer handles such cases, has maintained that Velis’ findings will depend greatly on what the retired judge “has access to and what accountability is given to the public.”
Stobierski, whose clients included the Croteau family, as well as some 25 alleged victims of Lavigne, said that “Weldon’s name was very prominent in the Croteau case in his interaction with Lavigne.”
Further, Stobierski said he knows from his work in securing what he called the “complete” diocesan personnel file on Lavigne that there are “documents that are not there that should be there.”
Stobierski noted that after he represented a young man who was allegedly abused by Lavigne in 2002, others felt “empowered” to come forward. Something similar could happen if Velis “finds Weldon to have been a perpetrator,” he said.
“It is helpful reassurance,” said Stobierski, adding, “If Weldon is found to be a perpetrator anything that honors him in the diocese with his name should be removed and any other perpetrator’s name removed.”
As of last week, Stobierski said he had not been contacted by the Velis investigation, suggesting “that Judge Velis had enough information at his fingertips and did not need patterned behavior or he had limited charge.”
Attorney Mitchell Garabedian, whose Boston-based law firm has settled countless clergy sexual abuse and misconduct claims, including those against Lavigne, raised similar issues around the investigation as Stobierski, though he is not involved either in the investigation.
“The thoroughness of the investigation will be limited by the amount of information given to the investigator by the Diocese of Springfield,” Garabedian said. “The investigator does not have subpoena powers and so whatever documentation the Diocese of Springfield gives him is the documentation he has to review.”
Garabedian said he continues to “represent numerous victims of pedophile priests spanning decades from Springfield” and characterized them as “highly skeptical that the Diocese of Springfield will not be hiding further information about clergy sexual abuse.”
He sees whatever change has incurred in the Catholic Church in terms of reforms to identify pedophile priests and protect children as not coming “from within the Catholic Church; the change is coming from outside the Catholic Church.”
“Clergy sexual abuse victims are to be commend in having the strength to come forward and report they have been sexually abuse and in doing so they empower themselves, other victims and make the world a safer place for children,” Garabedian said.
“If the Diocese of Springfield truly cares about transparency it would release the secret files, and that is what they are called in canon law, which the bishop holds and which indicate who the pedophile priests were, reports of pedophilia by the pedophile priests and names of supervisors who covered up sexual abuse. This would help clergy sexual abuse victims try to heal and parishioners gain confidence in the Diocese of Springfield.”
It was Weldon’s accuser who requested last year’s June meeting with Rozanski after the diocesan review board said the individual did not allege sexual abuse by Weldon during his June 2018 appearance before the board. Three individuals attending that meeting with the accuser supported his account, which was described as very specific.
A letter sent three months after that 2018 meeting by the review board to the accuser and obtained by the media reads in part said, “On behalf of the diocesan review board, we want to thank you for sharing details of your abuse as detailed in narrative relating to Bishop Christopher Weldon, Rev. Edward Authier and Rev. Clarence Forand.”
It added, “This letter, along with a copy of your request for the support you would like to receive from the diocese, will be forward to Bishop Mitchell Rozanski advising him that the diocese review board finds your testimony compelling and credible. As we explained to you the board has no other authority but to notify the bishop that we find your allegations credible.”
After the Berkshire Eagle published a story last spring about the allegations against Weldon and the other two priests and questioned whether their names would be added to the diocese’s list of credibly accused clergy, the review board’s chairman released a statement through the diocese, saying, “There was no finding against Bishop Weldon as the individual also indicated that the former Bishop never abused them.”
Following the June meeting with Weldon’s accuser, Rozanski filed a report with the Hampden District Attorney’s Office.
The alleged victim said in a statement at the time that he was “thankful I was able to tell my story to Bishop Rozanski today and reiterate the sexual abuse I continually suffered at the hands of Forand, Authier and Bishop Weldon.”
He said his “impression was that the bishop ‘got it’” and that, as I survivor, he wanted “to tell all survivors out there that you don’t have to be silent anymore, you are not going to be hurt again. There are safe allies who want to help you. You do not have to carry the secrets of your abusers’ anymore.”
In the interview with the Berkshire Eagle last June, the survivor, in contrast, said he was “crushed” by the review board’s statement that he did not accuse Weldon in his appearance before them.
“You’ve got to understand that with victims, the most important thing is being believed,” he is quoted as saying. “That’s a big part of not coming forward.”
The accuser’s allegations against Weldon, regardless of the Velis’ report, will not lead to any additions to the diocesan list meant to give accountability and transparency around the credibly accused nor will the diocesan review board’s undisputed finding of “credible” in terms of his allegations of sexual misconduct against the other two priests, both also deceased.
The diocese has said it lists on its website of credibly accused clergy “the names of priests with credible findings and who were alive when an allegation came forth” as the “thinking is that a deceased person would not have had the opportunity to defend themselves.”
Forand, who denied the allegations against him, was ordained in 1945 and died in May 2005 at age 87.
Authier, who was ordained in 1930, served as pastor of St. Anne’s Parish in Chicopee from Feb. 1, 1955 until his death Sept. 7, 1970. He concelebrated the parish’s 50th anniversary Mass with Forand, then parochial vicar at the parish, on Nov. 11, 1962, and Weldon officiated at groundbreaking ceremonies for Authier’s addition to the church on April 27, 1964.
The fact that the alleged survivor’s dispute with the diocesan review board played out in the media is the only reason the name of Authier against whom the alleged survivor’s claim of sexual abuse was found credible by the board has been made public.
Some lawyers have released the names of clergy accused of sexual misconduct in diocesan settlements with the alleged victims, while others have become known through civil suits filed against them or being named in criminal investigations.
When an alleged survivor claims an accusation of sexual misconduct with the diocese, the diocese reports it to the appropriate District Attorney for investigation first, and has said any allegation is also reported to the bishop, the diocesan review board and the civil attorney’s for the diocese, Egan, Flanagan, and Cohen.
The allegations against Weldon were also reported to the Vatican.