SPRINGFIELD — Upon entering the Gate of Heaven Cemetery, visitors find themselves face-to-face with Jesus.

The religious figure's nearly human-sized granite figure sits atop a 15-foot stone pillar above a sloping grass landscape, the dominant presence amid hundreds of gravestones in the Springfield cemetery.

Soon, that figure will disappear from its vaunted position at the cemetery, along with the remains of the man who lies below.

The monument was erected to honor the Most Rev. Christopher J. Weldon after his death in 1982. Late last month, a report commissioned by the diocese found that child sex abuse allegations against Weldon to be "unequivocally credible."

Following the report, the current Springfield bishop, the Most Rev. Mitchell T. Rozanski, ordered the monument to be taken down and Weldon's remains to be moved and "marked with a simple gravestone."

Diocese spokesperson Mark Dupont said that given the findings detailed in the report by former Springfield Superior Court Judge Peter A. Velis, it was no longer appropriate for Weldon's remains to be placed in "a high profile area that gives honor to him." Velis was hired last July to prepare "an independent and outside" probe, with help from a chief investigator, Dennis O'Connor.

That step came years after the victim first reported his abuse, which occurred in the early 1960s, and after a former church insider claimed the diocese was attempted to cover up the assaults to protect Weldon's reputation. The church did not list Weldon as "credibly accused" even though the diocese's internal review board told the man it found his claim believable.

The Velis report confirmed that the diocese mishandled the allegations, leading former Berkshire Superior Court Judge Daniel A. Ford, who now leads a task force on the issue, to conclude that the incidents examined by Velis "were nothing short of disgraceful."

"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.

'Just so sad'

A woman out getting exercise at the 421 Tinkham Road cemetery on a recent morning said she knew that the monument honored Weldon, who led the diocese from 1950 to 1977 and regularly visited with parishioners in Berkshire County.

Like the victim in the Weldon case, she grew up in Chicopee, where her brothers, also like the victim, were altar boys.

She recalled how greatly Weldon was respected in the community when he was alive, and how all priests were expected to be respected.

"It's just so sad," said the woman, who declined to give her name. "The whole situation is."

At the base of Weldon's monument, a plaque reads, "What he asked and expected of others was never more than what he demanded and gave of himself."

In Chicopee, a 30-minute drive away, sits St. Anne's Church - the place at the center of the survivor's story of rape by Weldon and other clergy.

The pastor of St. Anne's, the Rev. John Connors, said his heart went out to the victim when he learned of the report's findings and that the Mass to be said at the next Sunday Mass would include prayers for the man.

"I'm sad for this victim and others," Connors said. "It must be hard for this to all come out."

Along with Weldon, the victim, now in his late 60s, says he was assaulted by two priests, the Rev. Edward Authier and the Rev. Clarence Forand.

The current St. Anne's priest said although the situation is bad, he's glad it led the diocese to re-examine how it handles sex abuse allegations.

Because the law requires living relatives to sign off before remains can be moved, Dupont said last week that plans were not yet in place to move either the monument or Weldon's remains. However, the change will occur "as soon as possible," Dupont said.

Caroline White can be reached at cwhite@berkshireeagle.com or at (563)-513-1065.