THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Kevin Cullen

Victim remembers rules

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / June 6, 2010

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It was 1971, and Agawam was a sleepy suburb of Springfield, where nothing very exciting happened. She was 15, and there were problems at home, so she went to see her priest at St. John the Evangelist, the Rev. Al Blanchard, because she figured he could help.

Blanchard “helped,’’ she says, by having sex with her.

“I was so young, so naive,’’ she said. “I was 15. He was 30. My aunt called him the hippy priest. He had long hair, sandals. We thought he was cool.’’

The relationship — if you can call what happens between a vulnerable, mixed-up teenager and a priest in his 30s a relationship — went on until she was 19.

She lived with the shame and the embarrassment for a long time but gradually realized that Blanchard had taken advantage of her, had violated every tenet of being a priest.

By the time she went to Blanchard’s superiors in 1993, Blanchard had left the priesthood and was married. But the Diocese of Springfield found her complaint credible, and all three parties — the woman, Blanchard, and the diocese — entered an agreement: she got some money, he accepted responsibility for his actions, and agreed to stay away from people under 18.

Everybody got on with their lives, but last year the woman learned that Al Blanchard was a co-leader of a support group called Always Our Children, a lay ministry supported by the Diocese of Springfield.

According to the diocesan website, the group’s purpose “is to reach out to parents trying to cope with the discovery of homosexuality in their adolescent or adult child.’’

Always Our Children describes itself as “a support group and ministry for parents, families, and friends of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons.’’ The group, which was endorsed in 2006 by Bishop Timothy McDonnell, meets in the community room at Sacred Heart Church in Springfield.

The woman said she complained to the diocese because Blanchard is counseling teenagers, in direct violation of his agreement. She cited local newspaper stories that described teenagers attending the monthly meetings.

“Al Blanchard should not be anywhere near vulnerable teenagers,’’ she said. “But it’s more than that. The diocese says it has a zero-tolerance policy on anyone who has abused a minor being involved in any ministry. He’s violating that policy, and the diocese is looking the other way.’’

She said the diocese ignored her complaint and after waiting for them to do something for a year she decided “I couldn’t keep quiet any longer; this should not be allowed to go on.’’

The Globe does not identify victims of sexual abuse unless they consent. The woman said she doesn’t want her name in the paper.

Blanchard declined to be interviewed for this column. His lawyer did not call back.

After I asked the diocese how it could allow the former priest to volunteer for a diocesan-sponsored ministry, the diocese ordered Blanchard to stay away from the program he has helped lead for the last few years.

“Mr. Blanchard’s role as a facilitator with Always Our Children has ended,’’ said Mark Dupont, the spokesman for the Springfield Diocese.

Dupont said the diocese was not aware until I called that Blanchard’s victim wanted his association with Always Our Children terminated.

“When our victim advocate was contacted a year ago, it was primarily in the context of Mr. Blanchard’s license as a social worker and not necessarily his volunteer work with this group of parents,’’ Dupont said. “The victim at the time made it clear that her concern was his potential access to children. The clearly stated objective of the group which Mr. Blanchard along with his wife and another couple founded was to be a support group for adults.’’

Blanchard’s victim scoffs at that explanation and cites two sections of the diocese’s own Policy for the Protection of Children and Youth: Section 8 says no priest who engages in sexual activities with a minor shall be allowed to return to any ministry, while Section 11.5 says, “No individual who has sexually abused a minor will be employed or engaged as a volunteer for the Diocese of Springfield. The Diocese of Springfield will immediately terminate any staff member or volunteer if it discovers evidence of previous child sexual abuse by the person.’’

So, the woman says, “he committed abuse while he was a priest, so you can throw Section 8 at him, or if you want to say he’s a lay person now you can throw Section 11.5 at him. But don’t tell me they had to get a call from a newspaper guy before they could figure this out. I’ve been telling them this for more than a year.’’

Thirty-nine years after her mother dropped her off at the rectory in Agawam, the woman lives on the other side of the Connecticut River, in Chicopee, not far from where Al Blanchard lives.

“If I never see him again,’’ she said, “that’ll be fine with me.’’

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.

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