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Monsignor says harm of abuse wasn't recognized
By John McElhenny, Globe Correspondent, 2/23/2004
Monsignor Richard S. Sniezyk, 66, the leader of the Springfield Diocese until the Vatican names a bishop to replace Thomas L. Dupre, said that as a seminarian and then a young priest in the 1950s and early 1960s he heard of priests who had sex with young men, but "no one thought much about it" because priests didn't recognize how mentally and emotionally damaging their behavior was.
"They did good ministry, they were good to their people, they were kind, compassionate, but they had no idea what they were doing to these young men that they were abusing," Sniezyk said. "It was that era of the '60s -- most of it took place from the mid-'60s to the early-'80s -- and the whole atmosphere out there was, it was OK, it was OK to do."
Catholic priests no longer hold such a permissive view toward sex with young men, Sniezyk said. "Certainly that atmosphere is not present in the church today," he said.
Sniezyk's leadership comes at a critical time for the Springfield Diocese. On Feb. 11, Dupre resigned a day after allegations that he had sexually abused two boys in the late 1970s and early 1980s were forwarded to the diocese by The Republican newspaper. On Friday, the diocese issued a report that said 30 of the 1,003 priests who served in its parishes during the last 50 years had been accused of sexually abusing 70 minors.
The Rev. James J. Scahill, a priest at St. Michael's Parish in East Longmeadow who has criticized the diocese for being too lenient with abusive priests, rejected Sniezyk's comments about priests' attitudes toward the abuse of minors.
"He's saying priests were that lame in the brain not to know this was wrong?" said Scahill, a priest since 1974. "Any sensible person would know this is evil." Scahill said he was aware of homosexuality and consensual heterosexual sex involving priests, but had never been aware of any priests abusing minors.
The Springfield Diocese stretches across the four western counties of Massachusetts and includes 260,000 Catholics in 129 parishes. Dupre had led the Springfield Diocese since 1995, but resigned as allegations arose from two men who said he initiated sex with them when one was 12 and the other was 15. Dupre said poor health was the reason for his resignation.
At the 10 a.m. Mass yesterday at the 144-year-old St. Michael's Cathedral, the seat of the Springfield Diocese, Sniezyk mentioned Dupre only briefly.
"I ask you to pray for Bishop Tom and those two young men who have made these revelations," said Sniezyk. "As a diocese we need to reach out to them and do whatever we can to restore their wholeness and their healing."
The cathedral's missalette, given to parishioners as they entered for Mass, made no mention of Dupre, though it listed one of his predecessors, Bishop-Emeritus Joseph F. Maguire, along with other diocesan officials.
In an interview with the Globe after Mass, Sniezyk said the diocese had already taken a number of steps to address clergy abuse. It has hired a victims' advocate, Laura Failla Reilly, and is interviewing professional investigators for a new position to check allegations of clergy abuse, Sniezyk said.
The diocese has also hired a deacon with a background in corrections to monitor the approximately 10 diocesan priests who have been placed on leave after allegations of abuse against them. Meetings are being planned with parents, priests, and religious education teachers around the diocese to discuss the issue of sexual abuse, Sniezyk said.
Also yesterday, a diocesan spokesman said a Longmeadow priest had been barred permanently from future ministry after sexual abuse accusations filed against him in 2002. The Rev. Francis Lavelle had denied wrongdoing but had left his position as pastor of St. Mary's Parish after the two lawsuits were filed.
Lavelle will continue to receive health benefits and a reduced stipend of about $1,000 per month but will be prohibited from serving as a priest in any capacity except celebrating Mass in his home, said the diocesan spokesman, Mark Dupont.
"In no way can he present and represent himself as a Catholic priest," said Dupont.
The accusations roiling the Springfield Diocese in some ways mirror the allegations that rocked the Boston Archdiocese two years ago. Cardinal Bernard F. Law, the longtime leader of Boston-area Catholics, resigned in December 2002 after allegations of sexual abuse by priests under his supervision and criticism of his failure to remove the abusers from ministry. Law was not accused of abuse.
In Springfield yesterday, some at St. Michael's Cathedral said the Catholic Church's clergy-abuse crisis highlighted the need for reform, echoing calls in the Boston Archdiocese.
"If priests were allowed to marry and if women had a more significant role in the church, the way people are leaving for different churches might be different," said Barbara Hand, 47, an administrative assistant from Westfield who sang in the choir at Dupre's installation nearly a decade ago.
"This is a sad time for the Catholic Church," Hand said.
Hampden District Attorney William M. Bennett is investigating the accusations against Dupre, and investigators from his office are expected to meet this week with one of his two accusers. Citing health reasons, Dupre, 70, resigned just after allegations from the two men came to light. The two say Dupre abused them about 25 years ago when he was a priest and they were boys in Holyoke. They say he gave them wine and cognac before sex and showed them pornography.
The best-known abuse case in the Springfield Diocese involved the Rev. Richard L. Lavigne, who was convicted in 1992 of abusing boys, and has been investigated in connection with the death of an altar boy in 1972.
Sniezyk, a former top aide to Dupre, has been meeting with victims of sexual abuse by diocesan priests for a decade. One man was so scarred by Lavigne's abuse that he curled into the fetal position as soon as Sniezyk, wearing his priest's collar, walked into the room, Sniezyk said yesterday. "The 2 to 4 percent of priests who have engaged in this conduct have damaged the priesthood," he said.
Outside the church, Bertrand Fote, 28, a doctor, said he knew about the accusations against Dupre, but he said that didn't spoil his own faith or his view of the Catholic Church as a whole.
"Bishop Dupre is a human," said Fote. "People make mistakes."
Kevin Cullen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.