PITTSFIELD — This is the story of a girl’s courage and a parishioner’s resolve. The details all came back to Russell G. Powell last weekend, 44 years after his confrontation with a priest in a Pittsfield basement.
It happened on a summer evening in Pittsfield in 1977. Powell called the Rev. Daniel L. Gill, the assistant pastor of St. Charles Parish, and asked him to come to Powell’s house, a few blocks away on Lenox Avenue.
“I told him that something important had come up and we needed to talk,” Powell said.
What happened next helps explain Gill’s abrupt departure from St. Charles Borromeo Church and offers a rare inside account of how members of a Catholic parish reacted to a report of clergy sexual abuse, decades before the issue blew up around the world.
Powell says he was moved to speak out after learning of a Cheshire woman’s 19-year battle to have the Springfield Diocese take seriously her reports that the same priest molested her over several years when she was a child living in West Stockbridge. That abuse, Sheri Biasin told the Eagle Investigations team, started on the day of her first Communion. She is fighting to have Gill, who is deceased, listed as an abuser.
EAGLE INVESTIGATIONS: The Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield admits it failed Sheri A. Biasin, after she came forward to report clergy abuse. And not only once.
“I just felt so bad for that woman who was involved with that pervert,” Powell, 88, said by phone from his home in Florida. “I just wanted to help her. I hope this does.”
Powell’s story reveals that 25 years before Biasin came forward in 2002 to report her abuse, a representative of the diocese was informed of Gill’s misconduct.
A troubled child
Before moving from Pittsfield years ago, Powell was active in civic affairs, running for City Council and, earlier, serving as an elected official in Dalton. In the 1970s, he joined with others, including John Downing Jr. and Arthur Nichols, a pharmacist, to bring attention to dangers of drug addiction.
Because of that work, Powell and his colleagues were asked to speak to a 14-year-old girl who lived in the North Street area around the church.
“These parents were having trouble with their daughter. They wondered if we could talk to her,” Powell said.
Drugs weren’t an issue. A priest was.
After an hour speaking in the Powell family’s finished basement, the teen broke down emotionally. “She finally came out and said she was being brought up into Father Gill’s bedroom in the rectory and he was touching her.”
“She was in tears. She kind of felt embarrassed and was blaming herself,” he said. “We told her, ‘Hold your head up high,’ because she had a lot of courage to come forward and say what he did.”
Powell asked Gill to come over from the rectory, on Briggs Avenue, to his house, not saying why. The teen waited in another room with Powell’s wife. Gill listened to what the men had to say, then denied that he had assaulted the girl. The night wasn’t over.
“I had the girl come down and face him,” Powell said of Gill. “He finally admitted he was doing it.”
The next day, a Saturday, Powell briefed the Rev. John J. Foley, the senior priest at St. Charles. Powell says Foley promised to “take care of it.” Powell said Foley appeared to be surprised by the report.
“In those days, people did not speak up,” Powell said.
Nonetheless, when Powell went to church that Sunday, dressing for his role as a lector and taking his place on the altar, he saw Gill approach, prepared to perform Mass.
“He saw me there and turned around and walked off,” Powell said. “That was the last time I saw him at St. Charles. I’m willing to say we were the first ones to discover [and report] he was a molester. I believe nothing was done except to transfer him to Springfield.”
Powell said that four decades ago, he told a younger brother, John, about Gill’s admission. In an interview Thursday, John Powell confirmed that his brother did inform him at the time of the priest’s admitted molestation.
In May 1978, the diocese announced that Gill was being transferred to St. Christopher’s Church in Brimfield, according to a news article published at the time in The Eagle, ending a nine-year assignment at St. Charles.
The diocese said Thursday that it has no records giving a reason for Gill’s transfer to Brimfield and did not respond to a question of whether transferring a priest against whom an abuse accusation had been made was ethical.
Return to Pittsfield
Though Powell said Gill didn’t return to lead Masses at St. Charles, he did come back to Pittsfield — in a manner that upset Powell.
Five years later, in 1982, Powell said, Gill was part of a group of clergy to attend a St. Joseph High School graduation. The senior class included Powell’s son. The Most Rev. Joseph F. Maguire, bishop of Springfield, spoke at the ceremony. "In his entourage was Father Gill,” Powell said.
“Finally, somebody found out who this guy really was,” Powell said of Gill, a man he described as affable and generally well-liked by the church community. “He had a personality — a phony personality,” Powell said.
Biasin said she is grateful to Powell for making public what he and others did in 1977 to hold Gill accountable.
“It helps tremendously. You grow up not being believed,” she said, speaking of abuse survivors. “I know there are other people, they’re just not willing to come forward. I hope they do, so they can heal.”
Sheri A. Biasin, of Cheshire, speaks here about the culture surrounding clergy abuse in the 1960s and 1970s, her efforts to confront the abuse…
The 14-year-old girl who spoke her truth in 1977, whose name Powell declined to provide, would be 58 today. That makes her about a decade younger than the woman who reported to the diocese in 1992 that she had been sexually assaulted by Gill.
That woman, who today would be about 67, later accepted Biasin’s offer, forwarded to her through the diocese, to visit the Berkshires and discuss their common experience as survivors.
“We have another victim,” Biasin said.
The diocese confirmed that it has received three abuse complaints in all against Gill and that those reports were provided to the Misconduct Commission for Diocesan Personnel in 1992 and 2002.
In a statement Thursday in response to questions about Gill, the diocese said that its files contain no documentation that shows an internal finding that the priest engaged in sexual predation. But, as the Biasin case reveals, the diocese’s files are inconsistent at best on matters of clergy abuse.
“The diocese readily admits that in the past, the process of investigating allegations of sexual abuse of a minor and assisting survivors and their families were not conducted in accordance with present standards,” the statement said.
It said the Most Rev. William Byrne, the current bishop, is working to make amends for “the harm these errors and omissions have caused survivors and their loved ones
The diocese did not respond Thursday afternoon to a follow-up question about missing records.
“Sexual abuse at the hands of someone who represents the church is not only a crime but also reprehensible and contrary to everything the Catholic Church stands for,” the diocese said.
The diocese said it is willing to work with anyone who has reported clergy abuse but not yet seen that church official listed as “credibly accused.”
“We will work with them to bring their case to law enforcement and today’s review board,” the diocese said.
This story has been updated to correct a reference to the bishop who spoke at the 1982 graduation at St. Joseph High School in Pittsfield.