Family Saw Two Faces of Diocese
By Annmarie Timmins
March 4, 2003
Members of a family in which a young girl was abused by their priest thought a look at his personnel file last week would reiterate the betrayal they already knew. Instead they said it showed church leaders had lied to them more than they had realized.
Among their most disturbing discoveries, they said, was a suggestion that a church official was coaching the abusive priest on how to deny their allegations even as he was promising the family he would investigate its claims.
"Abused again - that's been my sister's experience with this," said the victim's brother. "I feel like nothing is going to surprise me anymore, and then I go back and look at these documents."
The brother spoke to the Monitor about the family's experience on the condition that neither the family's name nor the priest's be included in this story. His purpose was to protect his sister's and his family's privacy.
The priest's personnel file was among the 9,000 pages of church records released by the state attorney general's office yesterday in connection with its child endangerment case against the Diocese of Manchester.
During the last several days, state investigators allowed victims and their families to preview the church files to prepare them for what was going to be made public. According to sources who had read the documents, this was not the only family whose members felt the church had given them half-truths.
One victim of another priest learned just recently that church officials had misled him when they told him his priest had admitted to abuse. The priest, according to the files, admitted to abusing some victims, but he had specifically denied abusing that victim.
The priest in the case of the young female victim now lives in New Mexico. Suspended in 1994, he denied the allegation in letters to the church as recently as last year. He declined to be interviewed for this story and referred calls to his attorney, Robert McDaniel of Concord.
McDaniel could not be reached late yesterday.
The church official who advised the priest how to respond to the allegations in 1995 was Francis Christian, now the diocese's auxiliary bishop. At the time, Christian was handling clergy personnel matters for Bishop Leo O'Neil.
"My advice to you would be to make no direct denials," Christian wrote to the priest. "As I say, it is better not to jeopardize the fragile situation that exists by any direct statements."
Christian, who works out of the diocese in Manchester, could not be reached for comment yesterday. Pat McGee, spokesman for the church, said the file reflects that Christian had actually advised the priest to stop denying the abuse. Doing so was upsetting the victim, McGee said.
The diocese has concluded the woman's allegation is true, McGee said.
Last week's preview of the file raised other concerns for the family. According to the victim's brother, Christian misrepresented his interaction with the family in memos he kept on the situation.
The brother recalled Christian telling them that theirs was the first allegation of sexual misconduct against the priest that the diocese had received. The file released yesterday, however, contains a letter dated nearly 10 years earlier from Christian to the priest admonishing him for an affair with an adult woman.
The victim in this case, who still lives in New Hampshire, was abused during the 1960s, beginning when she was about 6. The abuse stopped when the girl was a teenager.
But she kept it a secret until 1994, when she revealed it to her brother during a conversation they were having about the Rev. James Porter, who had recently made headlines for abusing nearly 30 children in Massachusetts.
"It just knocked me back," the brother said of his sister's revelation. "And it still does."
The victim declined to be interviewed for this story, preferring instead to let the details come from her brother, who has gone to nearly every meeting she has had with diocesan officials since she reported the abuse in 1994.
Her brother remembers the family's first meeting with Christian at the diocese. "He acted concerned, surprised and interested in doing what he could in helping any way he could," the brother said.
Along with the sister's allegations, the family and Christian also discussed the affairs the priest had been having with adult women. Christian listened to the allegations and offered to set up a second meeting where the family could address the priest directly.
"The odd thing about that (second) meeting was that (the priest) acknowledged his lifelong infidelity," the brother said. "And he did not flat-out deny the abuse (of my sister). He said he might have been in her room at night, but it wouldn't have been for anything like (we alleged)."
What the family didn't learn until they read the priest's files last week was that Christian had advised the priest to offer that half-hearted denial.
The priest cooperated with the state's investigation of the church hierarchy and recalled for investigators his memory of Christian's advice: "He advised me not to deny it directly," the priest said. "(He said), if we deny it directly, you know they're going to get mad. I got the very impression that (if) I said, 'No, I didn't touch your legs,' she would fly off the handle."
Not on the list
Christian ultimately decided to remove the priest from his parish and to revoke his rights to celebrate Mass publicly. The family recalls Christian telling them the priest was being removed for his affairs with women, not the child abuse.
Christian did not state his reasons in his memo, but a subsequent letter written by the bishop said the priest was removed for the affairs.
In February 2002, when the diocese was persuaded by law enforcement officials to release the names of priests they believed had been credibly accused of sexual misconduct with children, the priest in this case was not on the list. When the family asked why, the Rev. Edward Arsenault, the person now in charge of handling clergy sexual abuse, told them the priest's file was not found with others containing child sexual abuse allegations.
Christian had filed it instead alongside those of priests accused of sexual misconduct with adults.
When the family protested and said they had come to the diocese in 1994 specifically to report the abuse of their sister, Arsenault protested back, according to the brother.
"He said, 'That may have been your perception of why you were here,' " the brother recalled. "I think my eyes almost fell out of my head."
McGee said yesterday the improper filing was a mistake, not intentional.
After constant urging from the family, the church released the priest's name a month after putting out its first list.
"That was possibly the worst month my sister has had in the last year of dealing with this," her brother said. "It was waking up every day and having a reminder that the diocese was not taking her seriously."
Reaching a settlement
Christian's mischaracterization in 1994 of the priest's sexual misconduct has had another consequence for the church in the last year. The family has recommitted itself to having the priest removed from the priesthood rather than just suspended, as he is now.
"My sister is now in a position to carry it farther along than she could in 1994," the brother said. "She believes and has believed all along that this priest should be (removed). We all feel that. It's amazing to think that he hasn't been."
The sister and her family wanted accountability from the church and last year began demanding explanations as to why the church was paying the priest's retirement when it didn't consider him fit to wear a collar.
"We just could not get the feeling they were dealing with us straight," the brother said.
Finally, believing it was the only way to get the church's attention, the family sent the diocese a letter demanding a financial settlement. Shortly, the church gave the family the audience it had requested. They met with Bishop John McCormack this summer. At their request, Arsenault was not invited.
The brother said family members were disappointed to realize that Arsenault had not told McCormack the most significant details of their sister's abuse or of their past dealings the church. And he said they didn't appreciate the hardball McCormack's legal team had played in trying to diminish a settlement.
It was McCormack who rescued the meeting, according to the brother. He offered a better settlement figure than his staff had presented, and he agreed to request that the pope remove the priest from the priesthood.
"I think a light bulb went off in his head, and he realized how big a deal this was," the brother said. "To his credit, I think he saw that we needed to find a resolution."
The family did settle with the church for far less than it had requested, but the brother declined to say how much. More significant, the brother said, was McCormack's assurances he'd have the priest removed from the priesthood.
It took the family nearly nine years to get that response. The brother appreciated McCormack's intervention but gave the credit to the state attorney general's office. Had the state not persuaded the church to release its internal files by threatening criminal charges, the brother believes the church would have continued to hold its own protection dearer than that of victims.
"That agreement will hold them accountable in a way they never have been," the brother said. "And it will hold them accountable in a way they believed in their heart of hearts that they should not have been held accountable."
(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 224-5301,ext. 323, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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