New task force expands review of how Springfield diocese handled sexual abuse reports

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SPRINGFIELD — A retired Pittsfield judge will help improve how the Springfield diocese handles reports of sexual abuse, a legacy its bishop acknowledges "has not always provided a meaningful nor pastoral response to victims."

The 10-person task force, chaired by Daniel Ford, says it plans to take a wide look at the problem, including allegations that former Bishop Christopher J. Weldon abused parishioners while leading the diocese for 27 years.

Weldon's conduct is already the subject of an investigation by another retired judge, Peter A. Velis, and by the Hampden County district attorney. The Velis report is expected to be made public soon, the diocese said. Weldon died in 1982. In a press conference Wednesday, Ford said the group he now leads will focus on holding the Roman Catholic diocese to account on how it has dealt with abuse allegations and to implement "meaningful changes."

"We are prejudging nothing," Ford said.

The Most Rev. Mitchell T. Rozanski, who created the task force, said Wednesday he has not been briefed on specific findings by Velis regarding allegations against Weldon, other than to be told when to expect a report. "He is very, very close to finishing," Rozanski said of Velis.

Ford said the report Velis provides will serve as a starting point for the task force's examination of the issue, which will include its own outreach to survivors of sexual abuse. When asked, Rozanski did not rule out taking immediate action in response to findings in the Velis report regarding Weldon, even as that document is referred to the new task force. Though its existence was revealed Wednesday, the group was formed last December, the diocese said.

The announcement follows the recent signing of a memorandum of understanding between the diocese and area district attorneys. The document spells out steps the diocese must take regarding abuse complaints. 

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A former member of the diocese's Review Board said last year that she believed the church concealed conduct by Weldon.

Olan Horne, an advocate for clergy abuse survivors, said that while members of the new group are "incredibly credible," he questions the need for a new panel."This is another layer, another review board, that will report back to the same guy and tell us what we already know."

Horne, a survivor himself, faults Rozanski for not acting on allegations that a Chicopee man brought against Weldon more than five years ago. "This is a bishop's job," Horne said. "It's just another way to keep [Rozanski] not involved. We need decisive action. Nothing that they are going to bring to the table will be surprising. The bishop is stonewalling." 

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In an interview with The Eagle last year, the Chicopee man said Weldon played a central role in his abuse, introducing him to other priests who forced themselves on him sexually."That just crushed me," the man said. "You've got to understand that with victims, the most important thing is being believed. That's a big part of not coming forward."

Acknowledging past

In written remarks before the announcement, Rozanski offered perhaps his strongest statement to date on shortcomings in the church's handling of abuse allegations.

"I am uniquely aware that despite past efforts, our diocese has not always provided a meaningful nor pastoral response to victims of abuse," Rozanski said in a statement.The bishop said he wants the task force to outline ways the diocese can improve its response to reports of abuse. "We owe all who we have failed to protect in the past a meaningful and transparent response to their important voice," Rozanski said. "We want to provide them with continuing support and healing while ensuring there is full accountability for any abuse."

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Ford's group will file its report with Rozanski. No deadline was set. Ford pledged to make it public as well and to answer media questions about the group's work.

"We will take whatever time we need to be thorough and comprehensive," Ford said at the press conference. In an earlier statement, Ford said the group will "work as quickly and expeditiously as humanly possible."

Before being named to the bench in 1989, Ford served as first assistant district attorney in Berkshire County, from 1979 to 1987.Ford called the group's agenda ambitious. "While the Judge Velis Report will be a critical starting point, it is clearly not the end," Ford said in a statement. "We intend to gather information from all stakeholders, including survivors of sexual abuse, and to base our ultimate report on additional data, the Velis Report, and best practices."

Any changes pinpointed through the group's work will be sent immediately to the diocese, said Ford. Along with Ford, who retired from the bench in 2019, Berkshire County is represented on the task force by Jim Stankiewicz, a former headmaster of St. Agnes Academy in Dalton. Irene Woods, founding executive director of the Children's Advocacy Center of Franklin County and the North Quabbin, is the panel's vice chair.

At Wednesday's press conference, officials cited her experience as a former child welfare advocate for the state Department of Children and Families. 

Other task force members are Orlando Isaza, a social worker and activist from Easthampton; Ronald Johnson, president and CEO of Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services in Springfield; and the Rev. Michael Pierz, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Agawam.Still others are Sister of St. Joseph Mary Quinn; Joan Tabachnick, a specialist in sexual violence prevention; the Rev. William Tourigny, pastor of St. Rose de Lima Parish in Chicopee; and Amber Zinni, a clinical social worker and trauma therapist with the Trauma Institute and Child Trauma Institute in Northampton.

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


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