This priest is outraged by scandal
Thursday, February 14, 2002
By Dianne Williamson
Telegram & Gazette Columnist
Luckily for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Worcester, the
Rev. Steven M. LaBaire was never disillusioned enough to leave
the priesthood after superiors ignored his concerns about
a cleric who today remains active in a Leominster church.
That priest, the Rev. Peter Inzerillo, already was being sued
for sexual abuse when Rev. LaBaire came forward in 1996 to
reveal that another man told him that the same priest had
groped him and pressed his pelvis against him.
In return for his willingness to give a legal deposition,
the courageous Rev. LaBaire was subjected to questioning so
hostile and belligerent that a diocesan lawyer would later
receive a rare rebuke from a Superior Court judge. And in
his first interview since providing the deposition, Rev. LaBaire
said he was deeply disappointed in the diocese's response
to his testimony and to its long tradition of covering up
the crimes and misdeeds of its priests.
``It seemed all about protecting the church and doing what's
legally necessary,'' said Rev. LaBaire, 40, during a candid
interview in the rectory of St. Luke the Evangelist parish
in Westboro, where he is associate pastor. ``I think if I
worked for Verizon, it would have been handled more professionally.
I love my church. But loving my church doesn't mean being
blind to things that are wrong.''
This week, a spokesman for Bishop Daniel P. Reilly defended
the reassignment of Rev. Inzerillo to St. Leo's in Leominster,
after a civil suit filed by Edward Gagne of Spencer was settled
in 1999 and the diocese awarded him $300,000. In that suit,
Mr. Gagne told a troubling tale of sexual assault by a priest
when he was 13 and his later abuse at age 19 at the hands
of Rev. Inzerillo, then the diocese's vocational director,
to whom the vulnerable teen had turned for guidance.
The diocese notes that Rev. Inzerillo maintains his innocence
and has never been found ``guilty'' of any abuse. But if church
leaders are technically correct on a point of law, their response
ignores the ethical and practical questions raised by this
priest's continued service in a church that is rocked by scandal
and struggling to regain some moral authority.
In his deposition in 1996, Rev. LaBaire said that a man who
did not wish to be publicly identified spoke of an ``inappropriate
interaction'' with Rev. Inzerillo that repulsed him and made
``Specifically, it involved a kind of strong hugging with
a pressing of the pelvis against the pelvis of this other
person ... on a number of occasions,'' Rev. LaBaire testified.
The man told Rev. LaBaire that the priest also had groped
him in the genital area, causing the man to push him away
and tell him to stop it. The man said he noticed that Rev.
Inzerillo had an erection and was showing other signs of sexual
arousal, Rev. LaBaire said.
The man gave Rev. LaBaire permission to share his experience
with Mr. Gagne, apparently after learning of his lawsuit against
Rev. Inzerillo, as ``a word of encouragement to someone who
may feel like they are David up against Goliath,'' Rev. LaBaire
Throughout the daylong deposition, Rev. LaBaire withstood
grueling questions from diocesan lawyer James Reardon, who
repeatedly insinuated that Rev. LaBaire was an angry priest
who was in collusion with Mr. Gagne. Mr. Reardon also asked
inappropriate questions about Rev. LaBaire's sexuality, hinted
that the phones in his rectory could be bugged and indicated
that the priest was being disloyal to the bishop, according
to the 169-page deposition.
In 1998, a Worcester Superior Court judge barred Mr. Reardon
from future depositions in the Gagne case, finding that the
lawyer ``repeatedly disrupted the depositions by raising improper
objections, instructing the witnesses not to answer questions
without justification and even, on one occasion, by threatening
the witness ... with legal consequences if he answered particular
After the deposition, Rev. LaBaire called then-Rev. Thomas
Sullivan, who at the time served as secretary to Bishop Reilly.
``I told him that I felt the diocesan attorneys conducted
themselves in an abusive, unprofessional manner,'' he recounted
this week. ``Father Sullivan said he'd convey my concerns
to the bishop.'' Mr. Reardon continued to be retained by the
diocese until shortly before his death in 1999.
Rev. LaBaire also recalled that, before his deposition, he
asked Rev. Sullivan whether Bishop Reilly wanted to speak
to him about it.
``The answer was, `Absolutely not,' '' Rev. LaBaire said,
adding that the bishop apparently was concerned with legal
ramifications. Since then, he said he was disappointed that
no diocesan leader has ever spoken to him about his testimony
regarding Rev. Inzerillo.
``At some point, there should have been a process in which
the bishop or a representative of the bishop sat down with
me and dialogued about the testimony I gave and my feelings
about it,'' he said.
Rev. LaBaire's deposition paints a picture of a brave priest
who is clearly frustrated with his superiors' secrecy and
lack of response to allegations of sexual abuse among priests.
At one point, after Mr. Reardon asked the priest whether he
was being ``fair'' to the bishop with his testimony, Rev.
LaBaire responded, ``One of the difficult things about this
whole sexual misconduct process in our church is that we still
have a very much closed process ... It is very different from
the Episcopal Church or the Lutheran Church or the Presbyterian
Church ... And I am all for a church where there is a little
bit more public accountability about what goes on in regards
to this process.''
At another point, after Mr. Reardon asked whether the bishop
was wrong to protect the reputation of priests, Rev. LaBaire
said that the safety of children should come before the reputation
of the church.
``For the sake of protecting children -- especially when
it involves children -- public action may in some circumstances
be warranted,'' he said. ``When it gets down to protecting
people, sometimes we have to make painful choices ... And
I think Catholics more and more are going to demand some sort
of answer or some kind of accountability.''
This week, diocesan spokesman Raymond Delisle indicated that
the Worcester diocese does not share the problems of the Boston
Archdiocese, which has provided the names of dozens of priests
accused in settled lawsuits to district attorneys throughout
``I don't think I share Mr. Delisle's perception,'' Rev.
LaBaire said gently. ``We've been warned by a number of experts
that we have a problem and we need to deal with it openly.
Some bishops have listened, some have not.''
Asked whether he believed Bishop Reilly has listened, he
said, ``I think he's starting to. I think we've gotten better.''
Rev. LaBaire was ordained in 1992 and has been assigned to
St. Luke's for 10 years. He said that, while some priests
are defensive about the scandal within the church, he and
many other priests are outraged, saddened and hoping for change.
And unlike many of his colleagues, Rev. LaBaire said he's
grateful for the media attention focused on sexual abuse by
priests, because only public pressure will result in improvements.
He said he agreed to speak out in the hope that his honesty
will help strengthen the church that he loves.
``I'm not sure everyone at every level of the church will
be pleased with my candor,'' he said. ``I've learned that
there aren't too many pats on the back or monsignor robes
for people willing to point out bad things in the church.
But I've told the truth, and I'm at peace. I know that the
church is bigger than the leaders who don't want to deal with
Dianne Williamson can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright (c) 1993 Worcester Telegram & Gazette Corp.