Family, Diocese Clash over Handling of Case

By Colin Hickey
Kennbec Journal
July 7, 2006

Waterville -- Last week the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland permanently removed Toni Breton from her position as church organist for Parish of the Holy Spirit in Waterville for allegedly having improper sexual acts with a minor about 30 years ago.

The church said it followed its Code of Ethics -- a code of behavior all church employees and volunteers who work with children had to read and sign -- in making its decision.

Breton's lawyer, Michaela Murphy, argues that whatever document the church followed, the resulting actions against Breton amounted to a travesty of justice.

At the heart of the controversy is a decided disagreement about how much opportunity the church gave Breton to defend herself against the charges.

Sue Bernard, spokeswoman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, said the church gave Breton ample opportunity to meet with church investigator John Brennan and review the charges against her.

Bernard said Breton declined that opportunity despite the church's efforts to make such meetings as convenient as possible for her -- the church was willing to hold the meetings in Waterville, Bernard said.

"She was immediately informed that she would have a chance to be in touch with the Diocesan investigator," Bernard said. "She had numerous opportunities to meet with him and review evidence, and she declined to do that."

Murphy, a lawyer with the Waterville law firm of Jabar, Batten, Ringer & Murphy, disputes that account.

She said she met with Brennan and that Brennan made "crystal clear" to her that he would disclose to Breton nothing more about the charges beyond what the church already had issued in public statements and whatever may have appeared in media reports.

"He said there isn't going to be a hearing, and we have no obligation to hand you all the information that we have," Murphy said.

What is not in dispute is that Breton signed the Diocese's Code of Ethics in 2003, agreeing to abide by its policies in doing so. That code includes a section on cases of abuse or neglect of a minor or vulnerable adult.

"She did read and sign it, so she understood how we handled complaints," Bernard said.

That process ultimately involves allegations of misconduct going in front of a Diocesan Review Board, consisting of seven members, five of whom are Catholic.

"The Review Board is not a trial court or an investigative body," Bernard said. "That is not the role of a Review Board."

Instead, its role is to review the information that an Diocesan investigator collects concerning a complaint, assess that information and then advise the bishop regarding the credibility of whatever charges have been lodged.

Bernard said that is exactly what happened in the Breton case.

Murphy, however, said that very process is a violation of the due process rights that the Code of Ethics addresses at length.

"The Code of Ethics does talk of due process, but the church has a very peculiar interpretation of what that means if a person does not have the right to speak at this (Review Board)," Murphy said "And this prosecutor has far too much power since he can't possibly speak for the accuser and the accused."

Bernard, though, said the Catholic church has the right to investigate incidents of misconduct in a manner it sees fit.

"As far as the church is concerned, this is the process," she said. "This is the whole thing. This is part of the Code of Ethics."

Colin Hickey -- 861-9205


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