Former insider sees cover-up by Springfield Diocese on abuse
A former member of the board that reviews sexual abuse allegations for the Springfield Diocese says the church is attempting to quash an altar boy's report of molestation to preserve the reputation of a longtime local bishop.
In a statement in response to an article in The Eagle, the diocese says that when its review board met last year with a Chicopee man who served as an altar boy in the 1960s, that man did not allege sexual abuse by the late Bishop Christopher J. Weldon.
But Patricia Martin and two others who attended that June 13, 2018, session confirmed this week that the victim specifically named Weldon as an abuser.
"We were in the room where it happened and [the man] did say that Weldon abused him," said Martin, a practicing Catholic who has worked as a doctoral-level clinical psychologist for 35 years. "I heard [the man] say that Weldon brought him in a room and abused him."
The Eagle is not naming the man, because he is a survivor of sexual assault.
"They are trying to cover [Weldon's] reputation rather than support a victim," Martin said. "It's beyond awful. It makes me so angry that they would deny it now. They're lying."
Weldon, who led the Western Massachusetts diocese for 27 years, died in 1982.
In September, three months after meeting with the victim, the review board produced a letter saying it found his allegations "compelling and credible."
"We want to express our sincere sorrow for the pain and suffering you have endured," the board wrote to the man.
The letter named Weldon, along with two other priests — the Rev. Edward Authier and the Rev. Clarence Forand. Weldon was bishop at the time the Chicopee man says the cleric abused him sexually.
The Eagle reported the contents of that letter in a May 29 story. The article noted that of the three clerics, only Forand was listed as "credibly accused" by the diocese. The church provides the names of "credibly accused" clergy on its website. The diocese's policy holds that priests accused after their deaths are not listed because they did not have a chance to defend themselves.
Late Friday, the chairman of the review board released a statement through the diocese challenging the accuracy of The Eagle's report. It says the victim who came before the board did not accuse Weldon of abuse. The board's job is to judge whether a complaint of abuse is credible.
"There was no finding against Bishop Weldon as the individual also indicated that the former Bishop never abused them," said John M. Hale, the review board chairman who presided over the session.
"Let me be clear, the Review Board has never found that the late Bishop Christopher Weldon, deceased since 1982, engaged in improper contact with anyone," Hale said.
The statement does not question the credibility of the victim's account that he was sexually abused by priests in the diocese. It focuses, instead, on a claim that Weldon was not accused of molestation.
The statement does not revise the board's September letter to the victim, signed by Hale, which said in part: "As we explained to you, the Board has no other authority except to notify the Bishop that we find your allegations credible."
Hale's statement Friday came as a shock to the Chicopee man, who told The Eagle that the former bishop, whose name lives on through the existence of the Weldon Rehabilitation Hospital in Springfield, played a central role in his abuse and introduced him to other priests who forced themselves on him sexually.
"That just crushed me. You've got to understand that with victims, the most important thing is being believed," the man said in an interview Sunday. "That's a big part of not coming forward."
But in this case, after memories of his abuse returned in 2013 — a moment he refers to as "the bomb" — the man contacted the diocese and began a yearslong process of reporting his abuse.
When he met with the review board last June, the man, now in his late 60s, says he named all the priests who abused him, including Weldon.
"I just walked them through everything I knew about the abuse," he said, including times when Weldon took him into a bed and sexually assaulted him.
"I remember wearing a coat when he dragged me into the rectory," he said of Weldon. "I never said no abuse occurred between Weldon and me."
Before coming forward, the man says, he was concerned that Weldon's prominent role in the history of the diocese, which he led from 1950 to 1977, would insulate him from consequences. "I didn't think anyone would believe it. I think of it as the `wall of silence' continues."
On Tuesday, The Eagle informed Mark Dupont, the diocese's spokesman, that three people who were present when the victim met at various times with church representatives confirmed his account of naming Weldon.
Dupont said Hale disputes that.
"So yes we stand by Mr. Hale's May 31 response," Dupont said via email.
Proceedings of the review board are not tape-recorded. Dupont said the review board meeting's notes "are limited."
To support the diocese's position, Dupont said the report that diocese investigator Kevin Murphy provided internally on the Chicopee man's allegations says the victim "directly stated they had not been sexually abused by the former bishop."
"This victim did not assert in his statement to our investigator that Bishop Weldon abused them," Dupont said in response to questions from the newspaper. "They did assert what both our investigator and the board found credible, which was this victim's allegations against two deceased priests."
Dupont said the review board did hear the victim mention Weldon, but not as someone who abused him.
"Neither Mr. Hale nor the diocese disputes that this victim, who it is important to note was 9 years old when this occurred in the early 1960's, did mention the former bishop's presence and improper behavior involving some unknown other person," Dupont said.
In his report to the diocese on the case, Murphy rated the man's allegations against Forand and Authier as "compelling." But not Weldon.
"He didn't share that same confidence in circumstances involving the former bishop," Dupont said.
In addition to Martin, who served on the review board for six years in the 1990s, The Eagle interviewed two other people who were present at the June 2018 session. On that day, the Chicopee man spent more than an hour telling nearly a dozen representatives of the diocese that Weldon sexually assaulted him in the 1960s, when the man was a child of 9 or 10.
That is the meeting where, according to the diocese, Weldon was not named as an abuser.
But like Martin, the two men who attended the session said in separate interviews with The Eagle on Monday and Tuesday that the Chicopee man specifically identified Weldon — and not only in the review board meeting.
They are adamant that the review board and diocese are misrepresenting the victim's long and emotional account of Weldon's abuse.
"Weldon's name is very key to that story," Brian Hetzel said of the account he heard the Chicopee man provide to the diocese, first to Murphy, its investigator, and then to the board.
Hetzel, a former Springfield resident who lives in Connecticut, attended the review board meeting and an earlier meeting the Chicopee man had with Murphy, a former state trooper who works as the diocese's investigator for sexual assault allegations.
"He 100 percent said it to Murphy. And to my recollection, Murphy said, `Those are names we've heard before,' " Hetzel said.
When the board heard the man's story, Hetzel said, many of its members were visibly moved.
"He's 9 years old telling that story," he said of the man, who broke down repeatedly as he described his abuse to the board.
"A person making something up doesn't break down like that," Hetzel said.
The diocese is not disputing the credibility of the man's claims against Forand and Authier.
"People were stunned," Hetzel said of the review board's response. "They said right there, in the meeting, they believed his story. There was a lot of `I'm sorry' and a lot of stunned silence."
Martin recalls the scene the same way.
"At least half of the people had tears in their eyes," she said, adding of the victim: "He told his story and he told it well. He said there were others in the room where he was basically gang-raped.
"I've heard of a lot of abuse in my life, but never as bad as what happened to poor " said Martin, closing her remark with the man's first name.
Hetzel said he is not entirely surprised by the church's disavowal, in Hale's statement, of what he heard the man say about Weldon.
"It's unfortunately not unbelievable," Hetzel, who was raised Catholic, said of the church's response. "This process has been nothing short of obscene. That's not how you treat victims."
Hetzel said the Chicopee man is up against a powerful institution, and the church's disavowal regarding Weldon puts the victim's recovery at risk.
"What does he have to gain?" Hetzel asked of the victim. "He has everything to lose. This is a glaring example of why people don't disclose — because you won't be believed."
Hetzel said he believes the denials issued by the diocese continue a pattern within the Catholic Church of failing to hold past and current priests and leaders accountable for crimes against children.
Dupont, the diocese spokesman, defended the church's effort to confront clergy abuse. He said the review board, which he stressed is made up of unpaid volunteers, is part of that.
"As we have demonstrated, we are interested in providing this independent forum so as to provide victims a process towards healing," he said. "This victim is free to reach out if they now want to make new allegations."
The victim, joined by the three people who saw and heard his presentation to the review board, respond that nothing about his complaint regarding Weldon is new.
`Summoned his courage'
Rocky Thompson, of East Longmeadow, attended the meeting with Murphy, the investigator, and the review board proceeding. He offered use of his house after Murphy suggested that the Chicopee man meet him in his car.
Like Hetzel, Thompson says Murphy indicated in the meeting with the victim that he'd heard Weldon's name mentioned before by survivors. Thompson said the Chicopee man named as abusers all three of the men identified in the review board's letter — including Weldon.
"My recollection is that Murphy asked [the victim] who had participated in his abuse, and [the man] named all three," Thompson said in an interview Tuesday.
At the June 2018 review board meeting, Thompson said the victim was specific in his report of abuse, naming Weldon, Forand and Authier.
"He brought that to the attention of the board. He wanted to make sure that they knew who the abusers were," Thompson said of the victim. "He summoned his courage and shared what he wanted to get across to the board."
Thompson also recalls Hale, the chairman, saying that no one disputed the victim's account, a stance put in writing in the September letter. He took sharp issue with Hale's statement last week.
"Whatever they said about him, that he was being untruthful, is frankly b-------," he said. He called the victim "a solid citizen guy who suffered some horrific abuse."
Thompson believes that by denying what he, Hetzel and Martin heard the man tell the review board, the church-affiliated group is renewing the harm.
"They haven't stopped abusing him," Thompson said. "I believe it's all about power, and they continue to hold it."
Dupont said the diocese feels a duty to fairness.
"We do have a responsibility to balance the legitimate needs of those who bring forth allegations with a process that is also fair to the clergy accused, especially when that clergy member is deceased and cannot defend themselves," he said. "Though rare, false or inaccurate allegations are not totally uncommon. Whenever we are alerted to any abuse allegation, regardless of the clergy member involved, we fully act on that complaint.
He also rejected Martin's assertion that church representatives are lying to protect Weldon.
"If the diocese was interested in covering up these terrible actions, we'd do like all other public and private institutions — we simply wouldn't publish names on our website nor utilize an independent review board comprised of mandated reporters," Dupont said.
Martin, the psychologist, questions why the diocese found the man's allegations against two of the three clerics credible.
"They didn't say, `we negate this one or that one.' Why would they think he was credible about two and not the third?" she asked, referring to Weldon as that third person.
Martin says that when she attended a listening session in Westfield that the diocese convened over the winter, she mentioned allegations against Weldon and questioned why the former bishop's name remains on buildings.
She says she was encouraged by someone with the church not to attend another such meeting.
"They were not listening sessions. They were cover-up sessions," Martin said. "There is a lot not right here. I love my faith. I love my church. But I hate what the hierarchy has done."
Larry Parnass can be reached at email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
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