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Spotlight Report

Priest abuse cases slow to settle in R.I.

Talks with church began a decade ago

By Matt Carroll, Globe Staff, 3/16/2002

PROVIDENCE - While the Archdiocese of Boston this week agreed to pay up to $30 million to settle 84 lawsuits and end a sordid chapter in the local church's history, Catholic officials in Providence have taken a far different course.

In Rhode Island, 38 victims of sexual abuse have waited so long for their lawsuits to be resolved that four of the 11 priests accused of molesting them have died.

For 10 years now, according to lawyers for the 38 plaintiffs, legal foot-dragging by the Diocese of Providence in a state that is overwhelmingly Catholic has kept the consolidated lawsuits against the 11 priests and one nun at a near standstill.

The court has only recently begun to permit both sides to begin general discovery - the legal exchange of papers and sworn depositions that are normally handled in the early stages of civil suits.

According to court records, some of the cases have provoked two involved parties to take extraordinary steps.

In one instance, a priest who had previous molestation complaints against him was only removed from a parish after an outraged Navy chaplain called then-Bishop Louis E. Gelineau and threatened to report to the attorney general ''sexual overtures'' made by the priest to a 10-year-old.

In a second case, the mother of an alleged victim stuck a tape recorder in her pocket, confronted the priest, and recorded what appears to be a confession, according to a transcript in the lawsuit.

But the decade-long legal wrangling over issues ranging from the statute of limitations to the First Amendment has left a string of embittered plaintiffs, who say they feel neglected by a church they perceive as arrogant and insensitive.

Leland White, 45, who says he was abused by a priest who subsequently pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting an 18-year-old, said it is frustrating that the Providence diocese has not moved forward.

''Portland, Maine, is doing it, Fall River is doing it, and Boston is obviously doing it,'' said White. ''I believe Providence is part of the same Catholic church, but I have no clue as to what their problem is.''

William T. Murphy, the lawyer for the diocese, denied that the church has intentionally slowed down the case.

''In view of the legal difficulties created by the plaintiffs' filing their lawsuits so late, the cases in the state court have moved rather quickly,'' Murphy said in an e-mail response to written questions. The seven priests who are still alive have all been suspended, according to the diocese. Four of the priests have been convicted of criminal charges.

Bishop Robert E. Mulvee and retired Bishop Gelineau, who is named as a defendant in the suits, accused of negligence, did not return calls to the diocese seeking comment.

Unlike Boston, the diocese has turned aside opportunities to have the cases decided in mediation. Murphy said that plaintiff offers for mediation have ''been so unreasonable as to preclude further discussion.''

In a statement released yesterday, Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse said that since 1985, the diocese has provided information about 17 priests accused of sexual misconduct. Nine were prosecuted, and six were found guilty.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs say that a major cause of the delay, even if subconscious, has been the church's pervasive influence in a state where nearly two out of every three people are Catholic. By contrast, in the Boston archdiocese, slightly more than half the population is Catholic.

''There is an institutional bias not to deal with this issue,'' said Carl P. DeLuca, who with two other lawyers represents 32 of the plaintiffs.

In a 1997 deposition in a related case, Gelineau admitted he spoke with two judges about sex abuse cases involving priests, but said ''there was no discussion of the merits.'' The judges were not involved in the cases.

Many of the accusations about how the diocese acted in Providence echo charges in Boston. The plaintiffs assert that the diocese broke promises to keep sexually abusive priests away from children. Priests, once complaints were made, were moved from parish to parish.

The first of the cases now before the court was filed in 1992, shortly after the extensive news coverage of the Rev. James R. Porter, a pedophile who was accused of abusing more than 100 victims in the adjacent Fall River diocese. But after a flood of other Rhode Island victims came forward with claims, the cases were combined in 1994 to make it easier to handle pretrial motions.

Last fall, the cases changed hands: Judge Richard J. Israel stepped aside. Judge Robert Krause took over, and the lawyers said they feel the pace has quickened.

The court records contain evidence that under Gelineau, the diocese was slow to react to reports that children were being molested by priests.

Twice, the Rev. James M. Silva was reported to the diocese for alleged inappropriate sexual contact with young boys, according to affidavits. The first time was in the mid-1970s at St. Matthew's in Cranston. Then in 1978, Gelineau met with parents from St. Joseph's School in Pascoag who had accused Silva of sexual abuse, and Gelineau ''promised the children would be protected,'' according to the affidavit.

But Silva was not removed, only transferred. In 1981, Silva allegedly made a pass at a boy at St. Lucy's Church in Middletown, according to court documents. The boy's mother reported it to US Navy Chaplain Edward E. Erpelding, who said he called Gelineau with an urgent message. When his calls went unreturned, Erpelding left a message saying his next call would be to the attorney general.

''Within 10 minutes Gelineau returned my call,'' Erpelding said in an affidavit. He recalled the conversation this way:

Erpelding: Bishop, I have a case involving Father James Silva ...

Gelineau: Oh no, not again.

Erpelding: Oh, this happened before?

Gelineau: (Silence) I'll take care of it.

Erpelding: Since this happened with Father Silva before, you have until 4 p.m. today to get Silva in a treatment program, or I will call the attorney general.

Silva was quickly removed from St. Lucy's. But he was not suspended by the church until 1986. In 1995, Silva was convicted of sexually assaulting an 18-year-old man and received a seven-year suspended sentence. He is a defendant in nine of the civil lawsuits. Silva could not be reached for comment.

Another mother was so infuriated when her son told her that he had been molested that she confronted the priest, the Rev. Robert Carpentier, with a tape recorder running. This is an edited exchange, according to a court transcript.

Carpentier: ... The thing is it happened just a couple of times and it wasn't, it wasn't, uh, it wasn't like, uh, my first experience, it was touches and that's all it was ... Everyone makes a mistake in his life.

Mother: Uh, uh.

Carpentier: And after that stops, can that be forgiven?

Mother: Oh yeah, if it's admitted.

Carpentier: I'm admitting it, I know I didn't admit it then ...

Carpentier later admitted ''misconduct'' in the case to a church official and was suspended, according to the lawsuit, and was removed from the parish. He is named in one suit. Efforts to reach him were unsuccessful.

Gelineau's handling of the charges is believed to be the reason that Mulvee was appointed as ''coadjutor'' in 1995. Officially, a coadjutor is the person who will succeed the current bishop. Murphy said Gelineau requested the appointment of a coadjutor.

But having someone named coadjutor ''means Gelineau got fired,'' said the Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, a canon lawyer and a co-author of a 1985 study on sex abuse by priests. ''After a comfortable period, it's time to retire for health reasons ... which creates a media smokescreen.'' Gelineau officially retired in 1997 at the age of 69.

Victims said they hope their long lawsuit will soon end, as recently happened with the case of defrocked priest John J. Geoghan, which by comparison took six years to settle.

''There is no reason why they can't or shouldn't do it down here,'' said Brian Condon, 40, who said he was abused when he was 14 or 15 years old. ''They know what happened. They know they are responsible. We are hoping they will follow suit. It is overdue.''

Matt Carroll can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 3/16/2002.
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