It’s a story both illuminating and disturbing: A Chicopee man credibly accuses the late Bishop Christopher J. Weldon of repeated sexual abuse, and alleges that top Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield officials engaged in a cover-up to protect the legendary figure’s reputation.
That illumination would not have been possible without the tireless Berkshire Eagle news reporting led by investigations editor Larry Parnass. Indeed, the Chicopee man’s lawsuit against the diocese, filed last month in Hampden Superior Court, cites The Eagle’s coverage and Mr. Parnass’ interviews with diocese officials throughout.
The section of the complaint filing titled “Allegations involving false statements about plaintiff to The Berkshire Eagle” paints a damning picture of the diocese’s behavior when faced with credible accusations against the late Bishop Weldon.
The diocese did not put Bishop Weldon on a list of credibly accused priests despite the Chicopee man’s 2018 testimony to the Diocese of Springfield Review Board, which the board found “compelling and credible.” When Mr. Parnass asked the diocese why Weldon wasn’t on the list, internal diocesan emails show top officials, including recently departed former Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski and attorney John. J. Egan, discussing how to downplay the Weldon allegations. In May 2019, diocese communications director Mark Dupont falsely told The Eagle in an email that the newspaper was wrong to report that Weldon had been accused, writing “You should know that there is NO finding of sexual abuse of any person involving Bishop Weldon — NONE.”
As The Eagle’s coverage continued to drag the issue into the light, a report commissioned by the diocese and led by retired Superior Court Judge Peter A. Velis found the Chicopee man’s allegations of repeated childhood sexual assault at the hands of Bishop Weldon to be “unequivocally credible.” After the explosive report, then-Bishop Rozanski said that the diocese had “failed this courageous man,” referring to Weldon’s accuser — but this contrition only came after key facts were unearthed by Mr. Parnass’ dogged long-form reporting in the face of the diocese’s foot-dragging and obfuscation.
The Eagle is far from the first newspaper to uncover clergy abuse cover-up scandals and it won’t be the last. This isn’t about patting our newsroom on the back. It’s about the power of quality local journalism to get to the truth; the necessity of clear, hardworking reporting for real transparency; the recognition of the grave ills visited upon the vulnerable that are concealed when sunlight is not allowed to disinfect.
Everything about this story is heartrending. A young child was viciously abused by a faith leader and suffered in silence for years, then finds the courage to speak, only to be undermined and gaslit by a spiritual institution’s leadership more concerned with PR than healing the wounded among its flock. It’s a brutal revelation that demands that we don’t look away, but further pledge to hold the powerful accountable and enable the suffering to speak. If there is any silver lining here, it is the recognition that good community journalism can help do that.
The Springfield Diocese’s new bishop, William D. Byrne, has pledged to be a transparent “healer in chief.” He certainly has his work cut out for him. We wish him well with the difficult work ahead — and we hope to hold him to it.