Chapter Eleven: Five Bishops

Bishop Weldon (1950-1977)
Bishop Maguire (1977-1992)
Bishop Marshall (1992-1994)
Bishop Dupre (1995-2004)
Bishop McDonnell (2004-present)

The Diocese of Springfield emerged from the rib of the Boston Diocese in 1870. The controversies caused by so-called trusteeism (lay participation and sometimes even control in decision-making) were by no means completely solved by the late 19th century. When bishops lobbied "corporation sole" through the Massachusetts legislature, it became a partial remedy. The Boston Archdiocese became a corporation sole in 1897 and Springfield followed one year later.

"Corporation sole" centralized power by creating a civil instrument through which church property could easily be handed down through the person of the bishop, who represented the corporation sole as long as he was in office. When the bishop died or left office for any reason, the new man immediately became the personification of corporation sole. Thus continuity was preserved.

This avoided the patchwork of unwieldy (and occasionally, confrontational) methods of handing down property through probate or individually deeded and owned property. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and certainly had the virtue of simplicity.

But, it is now recognized that corporation sole can be an awkward complement to canon law. And, in cases of financial stress, or legal fights over assets and liabilities, many of which we have seen over the last five years or so, corporation sole can create as many problems as it solves. We will address some of these issues in future posts.

The first administrator of the Springfield Diocese was Irish and long-lived. He set the tone. Bishop O'Reilly (1870-1892) was followed by Bishops Beaven (1892-1920) and O'Leary (1921-1949). In 1950 Bishop Christopher J. Weldon began his own long tenure and becomes the first of the five bishops on our list within living memory and also the first of the bishops who appears regularly in press accounts of the abuse scandal.

One of the striking things about the list is that the only home-grown bishop is Dupre. Thomas L. Dupre grew up in poverty in Holyoke and spent his entire career in western Massachusetts, except for education as a canon lawyer in Montreal and Washington, DC. He went into the chancery in 1977 and took on increasingly more important jobs. He was ordained an auxiliary bishop in 1990 and took the top spot in 1995.

Dupre served the Diocese from his ordination as a priest in Springfield in 1959 at the hands of Bishop Weldon until he left under highly questionable circumstances in Feb. of 2004.

After Dupre left, Bishop McDonnell was brought in from New York, where, among other assignments, he led Catholic Charities. Coincidentally, that was one of the positions held by Bishop Weldon as he worked his way up the New York career ladder some 45 years earlier. There, Weldon got his start as an executive, and went on to establish a reputation as a master builder in 50's and 60's Springfield.

In fact, a lot of the projects that Weldon finished were either planned or started by his predecessor, Bishop O'Leary. Weldon served a long time, but O'Leary had served just as long. It was O'Leary who did the spadework that resulted in the new Worcester Diocese splitting off from Springfield in 1950. Thus, both Weldon in the now reduced Springfield Diocese and Bishop Wright in the brand-new Worcester Diocese began work at a promising time for Catholicism, during a postwar uptick in prosperity and population.

Twenty-seven years later, Weldon was ready to retire. The man who replaced Weldon, Joseph Maguire, had been ordained an auxiliary bishop in the Boston area in 1972. He moved to Springfield to assist a worn-out Weldon and was tapped to lead Springfield in 1977. Bishop Maguire, in turn, retired in 1992 and is still with us. Bishop Emeritus Maguire celebrated his 89th birthday in September, 2008, and lives in Springfield.

Like Maguire, Marshall was already a well-established bishop at the time he was brought in from Burlington, Vermont to succeed Maguire in the spring of 1992. Marshall was immediately confronted with fallout from the arrest of Rev. Richard Lavigne in Chicopee by state police in 1991. After a plea bargain, Lavigne was convicted of molestation in June, 1992.

Marshall must have soon realized that Lavigne was a very sick man. In the early 90's, multiple victims in the wake of Lavigne's 25-year career came forward after the initial twelve charges. Lavigne was banned from ministry as a condition of his probation, and in 1994 the Diocese announced that it had paid out 1.4 million in settlement funds to 17 victims. That figure later rose to 1.7 million, when more confidential settlements were made. But, as bad as his conviction and the subsequent settlements may have seemed to Marshall and others at the time, Lavigne's legacy would prove more damaging yet.

Reflecting on the choice of Marshall some years later, the Jesuit scholar Rev. Gerald Fogarty said: "Marshall was highly respected, so his transfer from Burlington to Springfield would be indicative there was a problem that needed to be solved there. By and large, bishops of Springfield stay there. In this case the transfer of a bishop from one diocese to another was indicative of a problem."

Indeed, by the time he arrived in Springfield, Marshall himself was only too familiar with how bad the problem could be.

Marshall's education came from Father Edward O. Paquette.

Shortly after Marshall became Vermont's bishop in 1972, Paquette, who grew up in Westfield and had been in ministry for 15 years, wrote to him from Indiana, asking for a job. "I did have problems but received medical treatment, and I am now cured", wrote Paquette. He did not state what the problems were.

On Oct. 21, 1974, a pastor from Rutland, Rev. James Engle, wrote to Marshall that he wanted Paquette gone: "Dear Bishop Marshall, I am greatly disappointed and very saddened over the report I received from the (Rutland) hospital that Father Paquette sexually molested two young men while on communion calls in the hospital. As you readily understand, it is imperative that Fr. Paquette be removed from the Rutland area immediately."

"I would suggest also," Engle added, "that since his removal from the parish must be done quickly, it should be done without fanfare and farewell parties and that it be publicly announced as a sick leave."

Marshall pulled him out of Rutland and tried rehabilitation. He sent Paquette to the House of Affirmation, a treatment facility in Whitinsville, Mass. Paquette then served in Montpelier, seemingly without incident (evidence of incidents came later) and was transferred to a Burlington parish in 1976.

On April 4, 1978, Marshall found himself writing to the head of the House of Affirmation: "Despite the demands of two sets of irate parents that 'something be done about this,' Father Paquette's pastor and I are determined to take the risk of leaving him in his present assignment. Our thinking is that, knowing the awareness of others, concerning his problem, Father Paquette will have reason for 'self-control.'…do you think that the danger of scandal is already too risky?"

The answer came in a three-page internal memo from Paquette's Burlington church to the bishop. The memo stated that in addition to "fondling of privates of altar boys," Paquette had told stories to local high school students about "the occult and exocism (sic) process in fairly minute detail," including some graphic sexual content.

Marshall acted. He took the hard line and terminated Paquette, removing him from all ministry on April 17, 1978.

We will hear from Paquette again, for he has several connections to the Springfield Diocese. He's now close to 80 and has health problems, and though he's not worked in several decades, he gets by. He was left an inheritance by a parishioner of Our Lady of Blessed Sacrament Church in Westfield. For at least the last twenty years or so he's lived in the ranch-style house built by his parents on Belleview Dr., in a rural part of Westfield.

It was Paquette who was the accused priest in the jury award of 8.7 million dollars to a Vermont man in May, 2008. The verdict was not against Paquette, but against the Burlington Diocese, for negligence (950,000) and "reckless" negligence (7.75 million). The Springfield Diocese reacted to the verdict with this editorial.

Despite the speculation of the editorial, when another jury in a different case spawned by Paquette's actions was allowed to hear testimony about present-day conditions, they, too, awarded massive punitive damages. Again, the defendant was the Burlington Diocese. The award was for a total of $3.6 million dollars and was announced on Dec. 17, 2008.

There are other cases against Paquette proceeding in Vermont. His victims are estimated in the "hundreds" by one of the plaintiff's lawyers. The record shows that Paquette abused children throughout his priestly career, starting with his first assignment in the Fall River Diocese in 1957. According to statements given to the press by Springfield Diocesan spokesman Mark Dupont, Paquette was never authorized to serve as a priest in the Springfield diocese.

However, the Rev. Timothy F. O'Connor of Westfield, who was an advisor to Paquette after his dismissal from Fall River, consulted Bishop Weldon, and Paquette was assigned to Masses at a "sisters institution" in the Springfield Diocese, according to a 1963 letter. The letter was filed in court in connection with the Vermont suits. O'Connor recommended that Paquette be incardinated, or permanently assigned a job in a diocese.

With this background about Paquette it's not hard to see why one of Marshall's initiatives after arriving in Springfield and confronting the Lavigne scandal was the establishment of a "misconduct commission" which could review allegations. At the time, this was an entirely new idea.

According to a 2004 article in the Boston Globe, "The late Bishop Marshall, who created the Misconduct Commission, was a hard-liner who refused to let priests found to abuse children back into the church."

For a while, Marshall and Auxiliary Bishop Dupre worked together in the chancery. In a Jan. 1993 memo to Marshall, Dupre suggests creation of "privileged" files, to contain "…only those materials which are truly private and personal…these are some questionable areas…letter of complaint against the priest. Perhaps it should be in the 'privileged file,' if handwritten, and kept in the regular file if typed…"

It's clear that some chancery activity was devoted to keeping track of allegations. These files – which were later reorganized by Rev. Richard Meehan – were a flashpoint during the 8.5 million settlement case of 2008, not least because Meehan himself was dismissed from ministry and later defrocked because of credible abuse allegations.

After Marshall died of bone cancer in 1994, spokesperson Mark Dupont told the press that an administrator would be named within eight days (although the actual appointment of a new bishop was not expected for about a year, following the usual deliberate pace of papal appointments).

A committee of six, which included Bishop Dupre, Rev. Leo Leclerc and Rev. Richard Sniezyk, all high-ranking chancery officials, would make the decision about the new administrator, according to Dupont.

The choice for administrator, and, eventually, Bishop, proved to be Auxiliary Bishop Thomas L. Dupre, who was installed as the seventh bishop of the diocese on May 8, 1995.

NEXT: Chancery Discipline