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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 him uncomfortable.

``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 testified.

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 questions.''

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 Eastern Massachusetts.

``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 its problems.''

Dianne Williamson can be reached via e-mail at dwilliamson@telegram.com.

 


Copyright (c) 1993 Worcester Telegram & Gazette Corp.


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