Our Opinion: Diocese must resolve Weldon allegations

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The question of whether or not the late Bishop Christopher J. Weldon of the Springfield Diocese abused an altar boy in the 1960s comes down to who heard what said during a diocesan review board session one year ago this Thursday. The session was not recorded and notes were "limited" according to a spokesman for the diocese.

Recollections of what was said that day by the Chicopee man alleging the abuse could not be more different. Unfortunately for the diocese, the credibility of the Catholic Church, following years of abuse by members of the clergy and years of cover-ups by bishops and other church officials, is so low that any defense offered invites skepticism. That puts the onus on the diocese to determine what actually happened and take whatever action may be necessary in response.

Last September, a Diocesan Review Board notified the bishop, the Most Rev. Mitchell T. Rozanski, that it found the Chicopee man's story about his molestation by Bishop Weldon to be "compelling and credible." (Larry Parnass story, Eagle, May 30.) The 67-year-old man, whose name is being withheld by The Eagle because of his desire to protect his privacy, added that the bishop introduced him to two priests who also abused him sexually. The review board's statement to the diocese about the convincing nature of the allegations should have triggered an acknowledgment from the diocese that would have given the accuser something resembling closure after all these decades..

The accuser told The Eagle that he indeed expected a response from the diocese given the review board's finding. He related his story to Bishop Rozanski at a listening session in Western Massachusetts earlier this year. According to Olan Horne, a clergy sexual abuse survivor and victim advocate who attended the session, review board members apologized to the man who had testified about his abuse. The bishop, however, remained silent.

Days after the Eagle story was released, John M. Hale, the review board chairman who presided over the session, disputed The Eagle's report (Eagle, June 5). In a statement released through the diocese, Mr. Hale claimed that the former altar boy did not accuse Bishop Weldon of abuse so the review board could not have found that he engaged in improper contact. This statement shocked three in attendance at the session who recalled that the Chicopee man specifically named Bishop Weldon as an abuser.

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"They are trying to cover up [Weldon's] reputation rather than support a victim," said one of the three, Patricia Martin, a practicing Catholic and doctoral-level clinical psychologist for 35 years. "It's beyond awful. It makes me so angry that they would deny it now. They're lying."

The statement that the review board found the accuser's testimony to be "compelling and credible" was included in a letter the board sent to the accuser that was obtained by The Eagle. The letter said that "We want to express our sincere and sorrow for the pain and suffering you have endured." Presumably Mr. Hale, the head of the review board, signed off on this letter, or was at least aware of it, so why would he allow its sending if the Chicopee man never accused Bishop Weldon of abuse and the board found that the former bishop had never engaged in improper conduct? At this point, there are far more questions than answers and the questions must be asked of Mr. Hale and the diocese.

The accuser told The Eagle he feared that the diocese would be reluctant to pursue his allegations because Bishop Weldon was such a prominent figure. Indeed, during his years of service between 1950 and 1977, the bishop presided over confirmations and First Communion ceremonies throughout the Berkshires and Western Massachusetts and was beloved by many. It is difficult to hear of this accusation but as painful as it may be answers must be found.

Bishop Rozanski has indicated a desire to provide the transparency to the diocese that his predecessors failed to provide. The community listening sessions mentioned above would appear to be example. But unless the bishop is truly listening, the sessions are no more than a public relations gambit.

The circular debate over what was and wasn't said at the review session will accomplish nothing. Despite claims made by the diocese, the review board is far from independent, and its mission regarding the accusations against Bishop Weldon has been compromised. In February, the diocese of Little Rock issued a clergy abuse report from Kinsale Management Consulting, which the diocese hired to do a truly independent report that would have credibility with members of the diocese. Kinsale has done the same for other dioceses across the country.

The Springfield diocese should pay for a similar independent study into the allegations against Bishop Weldon. The diocese owes it to his accuser and to Catholics throughout the diocese who are weary of these scandals and open-ended controversies and want resolution.


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