Bishop Weldon lawsuit against Springfield Diocese continues allegations of cover-ups by top officials

A recent lawsuit alleging clergy sexual abuse and a cover-up by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield — which the diocese is seeking to have dismissed — recalls a similar case the church faced and settled in 2009.

The earlier suit claimed that former diocesan Bishops Joseph F. Maguire and Thomas L. Dupre knew the Rev. Alfred Graves, who had the time of the suit had been removed from ministry, had a history of child molestation when he was assigned to a Berkshire County parish. Andrew Nicastro, the 38-year-old plaintiff in the case, alleged Graves sexually molested him between 1982 and 1984 while a priest at St. Patrick’s Parish in Williamstown.

Lawyers for the two bishops sought unsuccessfully to get the suit dismissed on statute of limitation grounds. The 2012 jury trial ended shortly after it began when the parties agreed to a $500,000 settlement.

“They did not want to make a reasonable offer in the Nicastro case so we took it to trial,” said John Stobierski, who represented the plaintiff. “We got an out-of-court settlement when we were in trial on the fourth or fifth day. After a multitude of witnesses, it was resolved.”
He said the case remains to his knowledge only one of two clergy sexual abuse civil suits to go to public trial in the state. He said most such cases seeking financial damages for harmed caused to the plaintiff are settled through a private voluntary arbitration process.

The current suit filed in Hampden Superior Court in January involves allegations of sexual abuse of a minor against the late Bishop Christopher J. Weldon dating to the 1960s. A year-long investigative report requested by the diocese and released last year found the allegations to be “unequivocally credible.” The suit claims that the diocese covered up those allegations from the time they were reported seven years ago and draws on details in that report for evidentiary support.

The suit is filed against the diocese as well as eight individuals: former Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski, now archbishop of St. Louis; attorney John Egan, who also represented Maguire in the Nicastro case; Monsignor Christopher Connelly; Patricia McManamy, director of Counseling, Prevention and Victim Services; Jeffrey Trant, director of the office of Safe Environment and Victim Assistance; John Hale, Review Board chairman; Kevin Murphy, diocesan investigator; and Mark Dupont, diocesan communications director.

Separated by a period of more than a decade, the suits highlight the fact that individuals continue to seek both compensation and accountability, as well as validation for the physical and psychological trauma they say they have suffered, in most cases several decades prior, by the diocese’s failure to safeguard them as children from being sexually assaulted by clergy.

Stobierski, a Greenfield-based lawyer who no longer handles cases of clergy sexual abuse, represented 22 of some 46 alleged victims of such abuse who settled claims through arbitration with the Springfield Diocese for around $7 million in 2004.
Approximately half of Stobierski’s clients in that settlement said they were abused in the late 1960s and 1970s by a priest, Richard Lavigne, whom the Vatican removed from the clerical state in 2004. Lavigne remains the only publicly identified suspect in the 1972 murder of a Chicopee altar boy.
Stobierski also represented 28 of the 59 survivors in the $4.5 million settlement reached in 2008 on claims against clergy and one woman religious that date to 1948. The settlement was paid for by a $5 million insurance fund that took four years of negotiation between the diocese and its carriers at the time to establish.

He called the settlements “products of intensive long mediation” with allegations ranging from fondling to rape and some reported to have occurred over prolonged periods of time.

“Those two settlements were products of intensive long mediation to arrive at a global figure that would be split up among the survivors based on what happened to them and the degree of harm they suffered,” Stobierski said.

“A survivor would tell their story to a neutral third-party which was usually Paul Finn (of Commonwealth Mediation and Conciliation) and that person would value the case.”

The current suit is filed at a time when the diocese says reforms it has been engaging in over the last year-and-a-half are designed to be more transparent and accommodating to individuals coming forth with allegations of clergy sexual abuse.

An online diocesan survey showed support for diocesan efforts in its outreach to survivors, but faulted it for not responding to allegations in a more timely and compassionate manner.

Some survivors come forward with allegations to receive counseling from the diocese for the trauma they say they have suffered and some seek to have their allegations go before the Diocesan Review Board to be deemed credible and some then seek financial compensation that does not in being awarded involve any admission of guilt by the diocese or parties accused.

Lawyers for the diocese have requested the current suit, in which the plaintiff is only identified in the suit under a “John Doe” pseudonym to protect his privacy, be dismissed on defense strategies that they had said they were prepared to use in the future when they settled with the 59 claimants in the 2008 settlement and did not use them.

The strategies include arguing the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion gives church officials immunity from civil suits, as does a concept in state law that limits the financial liability of certain charitable organizations.

Stobierski called such strategies “shameful arguments to make” against those plaintiffs seeking compensation for negligent supervision by church officials that resulted in harm to them as children.

“It is hypocritical for a religious institution to be making those kinds of arguments against people who are abused as children,” said Stobierski, adding the diocese has used them in other abuse cases he has handled. “They are shameful arguments to make. Religious institutions should not be using legal technicalities to escape a responsibility they owe to the children of their flock.”

He added, “Most dioceses show enough compassion not to put victims or survivors through a trial because they are victimized a second time.”

“There are constructs within which to resolve these cases,” said Stobierski of the arbitration process. “When Boston started to resolve them (in 2003 under Cardinal Sean O’Malley), Springfield followed their lead in doing mass resolution of these cases, but when it comes to single cases, it is very hard.”

He called such cases “long hauls” that “are not easy.”

“The diocese has been extremely difficult in settling with survivors of clergy sexual abuse from early on,” Stobierski said. “It has been as bad as anywhere in the country in terms of having looking at survivors as folks who should have some modicum of compensation for what they have gone through.”

The Springfield diocese declined to comment on the pending suit, though it noted it has in the past settled other cases outside of the courts.

In February 2019, the diocese released a report that showed that to that date it had paid out $15 million in settling 147 clergy sexual abuse claims since 1992 with some $8.5 million paid for by insurance carriers. It said it spent an additional $2.25 million to meet requested therapy needs of those coming forth with allegations of such abuse.

Lawyers for the John Doe plaintiff in the current law suit have asked for Worcester Superior Court Janet Kenton-Walker, a graduate of Mount Holyoke College and Suffolk University Law School who has served in that capacity since 2009, to preside over the case so it does not take place within the Springfield Diocese that covers the four counties of Western Massachusetts and to ease any trauma on the plaintiff.

“I feel very badly for the man who is going through this,” said Stobierski whose knowledge is from what he “has discerned or read” about the suit. “He is taking it on the chin now for a third time. Once when he was allegedly abused by Weldon, two when his allegations were not handled very well and now with the case going forward as a suit. He is still being tortured.”

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