Priest Abuse Cases Slow to Settle in R.I.
Talks with church began a decade ago
By Matt Carroll, Boston Globe, 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
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
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
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org