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Judge orders Worcester Diocese to Adhere to the Law

By Alison Fitzgerald, Associated Press - July 1999

At one point in his life, Edward Gagne wanted to be a priest. But the Spencer, MA man now finds himself locked in a legal battle with a diocese he once tried to join, accusing two priests of sex abuse and accusing the Worcester Diocese officials of trying to cover up the priests' crimes.

Cynthia Yerrick, of Augusta, ME, has also taken the church to court, accusing the diocese of negligence because a priest allegedly sexually abused her when she was 4 and 5 years old. Both claim the diocese not only ignored the actions of the priests who allegedly molested them years ago, but recently tried to cover up evidence to avoid being found liable in the civil lawsuits.

After two hearings last month, Judge Thayer Fremont-Smith in Worcester Superior Court said, in some instances, the church kept information from the alleged victims and that a lawyer for the diocese tried to prevent witnesses from answering questions. The plaintiffs have asked the judge to decide the case in their favor because of what they called the church's cover-up. The judge refused to do so, but did order the diocese to pay for additional fact finding and to repeat its search for documents.

Yerrick claimed in her lawsuit that she was molested by the Rev. Robert Kelley in 1968 when she was 4 and 5 years old. She said she suppressed any memory of the abuse until December 1993, when she entered counseling. Kelley was convicted in 1990 of molesting another young girl in the 1980's. Yerrick's lawyer accused the diocese of hiding a report in which Kelley said "yes" to a question about whether he had behaved with women "in such a way as to cause scandal, criticism or suspicion."

"That statement on its own is not sufficient to take a case to jury. For the purposes of someone who is an applicant to a seminary, kissing a girl in public would be enough to cause scandal and criticism," said Joanne Goulka, a lawyer for the diocese. "There are so many ways that someone can cause scandal, criticism and suspicion that don't come close to acts of sexual abuse against minors."

Judge Fremont-Smith said Yerrick doesn't have much evidence to support her claim. But he agreed that the diocese was wrong not to disclose the report, and ordered the church to search for any more documents and pay for Yerrick's lawyer to take new depositions from all her witnesses.

He called the action "a serious and culpable noncompliance" with laws of evidence. Gagne said he was molested in 1978, when he was 13, by the Rev. Brendan O'Donoghue, a priest at the Our Lady of Rosary Church in Spencer. He said his parents had meetings with Worcester Bishop Timothy Harrington to tell him of the assaults and that they gave the bishop letters the priest had written the boy.

Twelve years later, Gagne said, he was preparing to enter the seminary when another priest, this time his counselor, coerced him into having sex. Gagne's lawyers said church officials failed to produce the letters and the church failed to tell them about other accusations against O'Donoghue. Harrington said he didn't remember the meeting with Gagne's mother or the letters.

Judge Fremont-Smith ruled that the diocese did not violate any laws of evidence. But he said in his ruling that evidence revealed at the hearing suggests "diocesan officials and/or their counsel may have engaged, in this and in other cases, in a 'cover-up'."

The judge also said one of the church's lawyers, James Reardon of Worcester, tried to prevent witnesses from answering questions by disrupting depositions. He barred Reardon from being present at any more depositions. Fremont-Smith also said the evidence he has seen showed that the church "for decades, failed to take appropriate action to remove from the priesthood known sexual predators."

Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests