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The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
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Sex Abuse Group Wants Trial for Maine Victim
SNAP Urges Maine Bishop Not to Interfere
Leaders of a support group for clergy sex abuse victims are urging the Bishop of Maine not to interfere with a pending trial in Maine District Court.
In a letter sent today to Bishop Richard J. Malone of the Diocese of Portland (Maine), leaders of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), urged Bishop Malone to stand aside and allow clergy sexual abuse victim David Gagnon to have his day in court.
Yesterday, in a dramatic turn of events, Gagnon's lawsuit in Maine District Court for $370 in past due therapy fees was continued to trial which will include the calling of witnesses including current and former bishops. (see attached article by Bill Nemitz of Portland Press Herald).
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) is the oldest and largest support group for clergy sexual abuse victims in the country. It is based in Chicago and has just over 5,000 members.
Here is SNAP's letter to Bishop Richard Malone:
September 24, 2004
Most Rev. Richard J. Malone
Dear Bishop Malone,
We, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), respectfully ask that you honor David Gagnon's choice to proceed to trial with his Maine District Court small claims case.
As a victim of clergy sexual abuse, David has felt powerless in seeking justice and accountability for himself and his family. By his own choice, he now has an opportunity to find some measure of fulfillment in his healing process. By proceeding to trial, David will have the opportunity to regain the voice that was taken from him as a child.
We are aware that you can put an abrupt halt to further court proceedings by simply paying David the $370 in therapy fees that he claims he is owed. Or, you could direct your attorneys to entangle the legal process in such a way that David would be so overpowered that he would soon be forced to withdraw his claim. Or, and this is our sincere hope, you will encourage the judicial process to bring forth the truth in a manner that is fair and equitable. We know from our sometimes painful personal experience that the truth will set us free.
We look forward to your response.
Here's the column by Bill Nemitz of the Portland Press Herald:
Portland Press Herald
COLUMN: Bill Nemitz
Church may pay high price on small claim
He came to Portland's small claims court Thursday seeking a paltry $370 from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland to cover the cost of his acupressure therapy. But by the time he left, David Gagnon found himself looking forward to something infinitely more valuable.
A chance, after 14 years, to tell his story.
Unless the diocese comes to its senses and pays up sometime in the next two months, the story of how Gagnon was sexually abused by the Rev. Michael Doucette will finally be told in open court for all the world to hear.
Ditto for how the church hierarchy turned life into a living hell for Gagnon and his family as they tried to recover from the ultimate betrayal.
"I was not expecting this option to open up," Gagnon, 40, said outside the courthouse as the day's dizzying sequence of events began to sink in. "But as they say, when the door opens, sometimes it's best to walk in and see what opportunities lie behind that door."
The opportunity is this: Gagnon's $370 claim against the diocese just mushroomed into what could be a full-blown court trial - complete with testimony from church officials who heretofore have managed to avoid the indignity of the witness stand.
From Doucette, who was removed from the active priesthood two years ago, to Bishop Joseph Gerry, who retired last February to a life of contemplation (or so he thought) at a monastery in New Hampshire, the proceeding could provide a long overdue, close-up look at an abusive priest and a diocese that continues to drown in its own damage control.
Here's how it happened.
Gagnon traveled from his home in Ottawa, Ontario, to small claims court Thursday and, without an attorney, took his seat among the dozens of other plaintiffs seeking compensation for everything from paint spilled on a carpet to a new bathtub that didn't fit. But his claim was different.
Since last fall, Gagnon's ongoing therapy for the boyhood abuse inflicted upon him by Doucette at St. Andre Church in Biddeford has included regular treatments of Jin Shin Do - a form of acupressure that proponents say can help relieve painful memories of childhood abuse.
Last January, after Gagnon filed an earlier small claim seeking payment for $700 in acupressure treatments, the diocese agreed to pay the bill before the case went to court. But Gagnon has since received an additional $370 worth of treatments - and this time, he told the court, the diocese refuses to pay.
Attorney Peter Rosenberg, representing the diocese, said the money is not the issue. Rather, he said, the diocese wants a "neutral third party" to evaluate how the acupressure relates to Gagnon's more traditional therapy (for which the diocese does pay).
Noting that the acupressure may well be a legitimate treatment, Rosenberg said outside the courtroom, "We need to have a process in place to prevent someone from saying, 'I want to be dipped in seaweed . . . and I don't have to explain anything to you about why I want it.' "
Fair enough. But in a letter to Gagnon last January, diocese attorney Frederick Moore wrote that co-chancellor Sister Rita Mae Bissonette had spoken with Gagnon's traditional therapist, who confirmed that the acupressure treatment was legitimate.
"Given that information, (Bissonette) will see to it that (the acupressure) bill is paid," Moore wrote at the time.
Add to that two letters written by Bishop Gerry before he retired, both pledging to pay for all victims' therapy costs, and one can't help but wonder: Why doesn't the diocese just cough up the $370 and make this relatively minor dispute go away?
Because, as Rosenberg so tactfully put it in open court, past payments for Gagnon's therapy were "acts of charity" by the church - not admissions of, shall we say, guilt.
"As a matter of law, the (diocese) isn't liable for these claims," Rosenberg told Judge Andrew Horton.
Horton, wise jurist that he is, listened to Rosenberg's protestations without so much as raising an eyebrow. Then the judge offered Gagnon an opportunity to blow this case - smothered until now by a confidential 1993 settlement agreement - wide open.
Specifically, Horton told Gagnon he had two options for proceeding with his claim.
One would be as a contractual dispute: Gagnon could argue that Gerry's past assurances to pay for therapy amounted to a contract with victims that has now been breached. The evidence, Horton said, would be limited to the bishop's letters.
The second option would be to initiate a "tort" claim: Contractual obligations aside, Gagnon could assert that the church caused the emotional distress that made the therapy necessary in the first place - and thus the church is liable for the resulting therapy bills.
In other words, by going the tort route, Gagnon could take his case back to the day the abuse first occurred and run with it. He could call witnesses, introduce evidence, finally force Doucette and the diocese to account - in detail and in public - for what they did to Gagnon and his family.
In short, Gagnon could have the trial he's always wanted - in, of all places, small claims court.
Gagnon thought about it over lunch with his father and Paul Kendrick, a local advocate for church abuse victims.
Returning to court early Thursday afternoon, he told the judge, "I want to go with the option of the tort approach."
He'll need an attorney, of course. And because the tort claim was not sufficiently spelled out in his initial filing, Horton said Gagnon must do it over and allow the church time to prepare its defense.
But the wheels are turning.
Asked by the judge how many witnesses he expects to call, Gagnon replied, "I can think of at least four."
Horton then asked if he thinks Gagnon could present his case in, say, an hour?
"I would say probably several hours," Gagnon replied.
If not days. Asked if he was concerned about the prospect of Gagnon calling diocesan officials, one by one, to the witness stand, defense attorney Rosenberg replied, "You don't have to explain to me what the ramifications of that are."
They are, in a word, huge.
Rosenberg will undoubtedly flood the court with pretrial motions aimed either at getting the case tossed or at least limiting the reach of Gagnon's witness list.
Failing that, the diocese presumably could escape its day in court by setting aside its arrogance long enough to pick up its checkbook.
But for now, thanks to a church hierarchy that still can't tell its humility from its hubris, Gagnon has his foot in the door to Maine's judicial system. And after 14 years of battling the church he once loved, he knows what that means.
It means the Diocese of Portland, protected for years by settlement agreements that slap gags on its victims and Maine Supreme Judicial Court rulings that shield church leaders from responsibility for the sins of their clergy, might finally end up in the hot seat.
And it means David Gagnon, as brave as he is articulate, might finally find the true justice so many church victims have been denied.
All for $370.
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
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