Judge finds allegation against former Bishop Weldon 'unequivocally credible'

Bishop Christopher J. Weldon

The Springfield Diocese sought to protect the reputation of the late Bishop Christopher J. Weldon, a retired judge says, despite a former altar boy’s “unequivocally credible” complaint that the bishop sexually molested him repeatedly in the early 1960s, in group assaults joined by other clergy.

Now, Weldon’s name and likeness will be purged from Catholic church venues — and his remains moved from a place of honor.

Judge Peter A. Velis said in a report made public Wednesday that a Chicopee man’s allegations of repeated sexual assaults by the bishop are believable.

Velis was hired by the diocese last July to prepare "an independent and outside" probe, with help from a chief investigator, Dennis O’Connor.

Velis said he reached that conclusion about the bishop’s “evil deeds,” even as he strove to consider that Weldon isn’t alive to defend himself. The bishop died in 1982, after serving the diocese, including Berkshire County, from 1950 to 1977.

“I conducted the process in the light most favorable to him,” Velis said of Weldon. “However … I still reached an informed and indisputable conclusion.”

In an appearance Wednesday alongside the Most Rev. Mitchell T. Rozanski, Velis affirmed the outcome of his investigation, which he acknowledged will dishearten Catholics throughout the region.

“The finding I made I stand behind as an indisputable truth,” he said.

Rozanski said he accepted the report’s conclusions and called for mentions of Weldon to be removed from view.

Rozanski directed not only that Weldon’s name be struck from a Springfield rehabilitation hospital, but that his remains in a diocesan cemetery be moved from a place of honor and “marked with a simple gravestone.”

Mary Orr, a spokeswoman for Mercy Medical Center, said that when Weldon’s name was embraced years ago by its facility, “it was done so with the best of intentions.”

“The events of recent days have led us to consciously reflect on our mission and core values and it is clear that it is necessary to retract that decision and change the name of Weldon Rehabilitation Hospital,” she said.

“Although a final determination of the new name has not yet been made, we will move through this process immediately.”

Weldon’s name will also be placed among priests on an online list of credibly accused clergy.

His name appeared on the list Wednesday.

The bishop also issued an apology to the unnamed victim of Weldon’s abuse, which is detailed in a nearly 400-page report now available on the diocese’s website.

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“I want to sincerely apologize to this victim,” said Rozanski, who will become archbishop in St. Louis in August. “Not just for the terrible abuse he had to endure as a young child, abuse which still haunts him to this very day.”

The Chicopee man, who told his story last year to The Eagle, did not respond Wednesday to requests for comment on the report or apology. Coverage in The Eagle about the man’s plight is cited in the Velis report as a reason Rozanski sought an independent review.

The man’s experience as a 9-year-old altar boy, detailed in the Velis report, included rape in secretive church quarters that left him bloodied and calling for his mother. He described Weldon as the most violent of the men who abused him, saying the bishop would strike him when he cried.

Along with the former bishop, the man says he was assaulted by two priests, the Rev. Edward Authier and the Rev. Clarence Forand.

‘Chronic mishandling’

The bishop also acknowledged the diocese’s failure to act decisively on the complaint when it came in six years ago. The Velis report documents missteps that left the victim waiting and having to repeatedly detail his abuse.

“I want to apologize for the chronic mishandling of this case, time and time again since 2014,” Rozanski said. “In almost every instance, we have failed this courageous man who nonetheless persevered thanks in part to a reliable support network, as well as to a deep desire for a just response to the terrible abuse which he endured.”

Velis is critical of how the diocese went about investigating allegations about Weldon — concluding that officials acted to protect the bishop.

“I found that there was a reluctance to fervently pursue an evaluation of allegations against him due to his prominence and revered legacy in the religious community,” Velis wrote. 

Based on interviews he conducted over the past year, the judge says he determined that the diocese showed “a clear lack of industry and concern for the quality of the entire process in terms of the scope of the investigation.”

Velis also faults the diocese’s internal review board for mishandling reports regarding Weldon. The judge said he interviewed not only diocesan insiders, but members of the former altar boy’s support group and other former altar boys, presumably from the period covering Weldon’s service.

“It was clear in my examination that the process included an inexplicable modification and manipulation of the reports received by and acted on by the Diocesan Review Board,” Velis wrote in the summary. “Additionally, the complaint process was compromised in that mandatory reporters failed in their duties to report the allegations to prosecutorial authorities.”

Rozanski said the church failed “to live up to its promise and obligations,” a conclusion also held by those who worked to help the victim have his complaint against Weldon and two others be taken seriously. “We need to implement real and substantial changes,” the bishop said.

Olan Horne, of Chester, a clergy abuse survivor who advised the victim, said Wednesday he has for years attempted to improve how the diocese responds to victims’ complaints.

“We agree, also unequivocally, that the claims were credible,” he said in an email, “and the system was not adequate.”

Clergy react

Monsignor Michael Shershanovich, of St. Joseph's Church in Pittsfield, said he was saddened to learn of the finding about Weldon, but is glad the judge investigated.

“There’s an old scripture that says ‘the truth shall set us free.’ Hopefully, the truth will lead to a better future for all those who have been hurt by the church,” he said. “I’m glad there will be some relief for the victim.”

The Rev. Peter A. Gregory, former priest at St. Charles Borromeo in Pittsfield and now chaplain at Soldier On in Pittsfield, said he was pained by the news about Weldon, who ordained him as a priest in 1973.

“It bothers me that there was a cover-up. It should have been attended to at the time,” he said of the diocese’s handling of the complaint. “Maybe this is a sign that in due time justice is served.”

“The opportunity of having the truth come out, as painful as it may feel, the people deserve this,” Gregory said. “We have to be on the path of being trustworthy in our church authorities again. Through this experience, trust might be restored as we turn it over to the Lord and ask him for the truth. Truth prevails. Time is of no essence for the truth.”

Former Berkshire Superior Court Judge Daniel A. Ford leads a new task force charged with recommending reforms on how the diocese handles abuse complaints. His group will examine recommendations that make up the second half of the Velis report, which Ford called “exhaustive.”

“Those who have failed to live up to their obligations or to carry out their responsibilities properly have been named, exposed and shamed,” Ford said. “What happened here in the past was nothing short of disgraceful. Disgraceful.”

Ford said he believes the findings about Weldon provide a moment for Catholics in the region to heal any rift with their church or faith. “The scab has been ripped off the wound and the truth has been laid bare for all the world to see. I think that’s a good thing.”

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.