Chapter Twelve: Chancery Discipline

Removal from the priesthood is called, formally, "laicization", and informally, "defrocking". It's one of the four disciplinary steps that a bishop can take against a priest. The first is placing the priest in "limited" ministry. Then, a further removal from, respectively, all ministry, priesthood and, finally, the payroll.

This four-part discipline has taken on great significance in the Springfield Diocese as successive bishops have grappled with the sex abuse scandal. The first type, "limited" ministry, was by far the preferred option up to 2002. At least four parish priests were removed for credible abuse allegations in the 1990's – and then reassigned to office work.

But, a more serious matter is that it is now clear that even after increasing amounts of evidence continued to pile up, bishops were reluctant to take any action against the notorious serial abuser Rev. Richard Lavigne.

Between 1966 and 1991, Lavigne was moved by the diocese to seven different parishes in the four western counties. His base of operations for the last 12 years or so was St. Joseph's in Shelburne Falls. He was pastor there, but appears to have lived at his own home in nearby Ashfield. The Diocese has admitted to receiving complaints about him of a sexual nature no earlier than 1986. At that time, according to the Diocese, he was evaluated and then returned to service.

He was placed on limited ministry only after he was arrested by the state police on five counts of sex abuse with about a dozen victims. It was only after his conviction in a court of law that he was removed from all ministry in 1992 as a condition of a ten-year probation imposed by Judge Guy Volterra.

Lavigne never did jail time. For the next 10 years, while on probation, he was a valid priest, was paid a monthly stipend of around a thousand dollars, and had full health and dental benefits. He was finally laicized in 2004, but only after considerable public pressure. Richard Lavigne is responsible for many of the allegations settled in 2008 as well as 17 allegations in 1994 and 24 in 2004.

After 2002, the Dallas Norms endorsed by the U.S. Bishops and the Vatican made removal for credibly accused priests mandatory. This change reduced the bishop's control over personnel.

The Misconduct Commission (a lay body that reports to the bishop about allegations) was formed in Dec. of 1992. The original title was the Commission to Investigate Improper Conduct of Diocesan Personnel.

But, to understand laicization, it's helpful to go back to a time when complaints were made directly to diocesan officials. What does laicization mean, and why is it important?

"Defrocking" simply means that a man is returned to the lay state. But, nothing else about it is simple.

In a theological sense, the church holds that priesthood confers a permanent "mark" on a man's soul. This mark cannot be erased, even if the priest is laicized. The motto "once a priest, always a priest" sums it up. Or, as Bishop Dupre once said: "According to theology and our faith, once you are ordained a priest, in the eyes of the church, you are a priest forever - whether you go to heaven or you go to hell. That can't be taken away from you."

But there's another reason that laicization is important to a discussion about recent Diocesan history – documents. A very complete paper trail between the local diocese and the Vatican is necessary for laicization. It would not be an exaggeration to compare the Vatican to the Supreme Court in these matters. Letters of complaint, legal briefs, medical evidence, admonitions, clinical evaluations and progress reports – a veritable gold mine of discovery for lawyers – accrues around laicization proceedings. It is not hard to see why these documents were at the heart of the recent 8.5 million settlement case.

In 1988, a complaint was made directly to Springfield Diocesan officials about Rev. Ronald Malboeuf. The complainant alleged 5 years of abuse beginning when he was 10 years old in the mid-1960's. Malboeuf left ministry almost immediately after the complaints and was laicized in 1989. We will return to this victim's story in a while and follow what happened when he approached the Misconduct Commission with his story.

Another victim of Malboeuf's came forward in 2003. His claim, too, involved 5 years of abuse in the mid-1960's. This claim became part of Attorney Stobierski's consolidated group which was settled in 2004.

The speed with which the Malboeuf laicization took place (accused in 1988, defrocked in 1989) may surprise some, but there's a simple reason. It was done at the request of Malboeuf. This type is one of those called "administrative". For the record, Bishop Dupre stated some four years later that Malboeuf's voluntary process was underway before any complaints were made.

Involuntary laicization ("judicial") is another matter. Dioceses' differ in their policies, but a significant side effect of administrative laicization was that Malboeuf was no longer supported by the Springfield Diocese after his defrocking. This is significant because it was the support of Lavigne that caused such a bitter controversy between parishioners and the Diocese. The central funds of the Diocese are supported by a 6% tax on recurring parish income (weekly collections).

In 2002, while explaining to the Union-News why Lavigne was not defrocked, Dupre said Catholic bishops have been reluctant to use the laicization process against "notorious and serial" child sexual abusers because the process is so cumbersome.

"The priest has all the rights any person would have - the right of due process, the right to a lawyer . . . There are rules of evidence and a statute of limitations and on and on and on," he said.

In a previous post we described how Bishop Marshall, while still in Vermont, removed the Rev. Edward O. Paquette from ministry. We now know that Paquette was a serial offender, and that Marshall knew this. Fortunately, in 1978, he acted on that knowledge. But, when he tried to get another repeat offender involuntarily laicized a few years later, his efforts met resistance from Rome.

It's worth noting that the statute of limitations observed by the Vatican for sex crimes differs from U.S. laws. Here, a patchwork of state laws is the rule, but the Vatican view is consistent: abuse claims must be filed "by age 28". Few of the abuse cases in the Springfield Diocese would have gone forward to settlement with this limitation. And, absent the threat of a civil charge, it's questionable whether the Diocese would have settled any of the claims against it in recent years.

Statute of limitations issues are still with us. The only reason that the Rev. Gary Mercure of the Albany area was liable for charges of sexual abuse in the Commonwealth was that he had crossed state lines. This extended the statue. Professor Marci Hamilton advocates for SOL reform across the board in her book, "Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children".

It was during the 1980's, while still in Vermont, that Bishop Marshall traveled the same road as Cardinal Bernadin of Chicago, a proponent for better scrutiny within priestly ranks. Formerly, Bernadin had been willing to reassign some priests to parishes after they underwent apparently successful treatment. But in 1992, he said "I now feel that anyone who has engaged in sexual misconduct with a minor should not be placed in parish ministry again."

It was Bernadin who broke the mold by establishing a three-person lay commission to address the abuse problem in 1991. The group included a judge and social services official. They recommended a permanent group of lay advisors. Their idea was to report directly to the Cardinal, by-passing chancery officials. Soon, the Fitness Review Board, a 9-member panel of lay advisors, began their work in Chicago.

Chicago has continued to break ground. For example, the archdiocesan web site has dozens of pages of information on abuse, and lists over 60 accused local priests. The Springfield Diocese has shown no inclination to imitate these steps.

However, on Dec. 14, 1992, the Springfield Diocese did start a group modeled after Chicago's initiative. The original title was the "Commission To Investigate Improper Conduct Of Diocesan Personnel". Local press accounts ascribe its creation to two signal events: Lavigne's arrest (1991) and conviction (1992).

As we have seen, Paquette, the repeat offender, was fired by Marshall in 1978, but he was never laicized (removed from the priesthood). Nor, probably, was he removed from the payroll. It's likely that during the 80's the Burlington Diocese, like many others, had a "clergy on involuntary leave" policy which continued to pay a monthly stipend and health benefits. For example, the tab for this category in FY2007 for the Springfield Diocese was $167,272.

The Springfield commission was said to be an independent board, with clout. Dupre often talked of "following their recommendations" and praised their professionalism. The board was staffed by volunteers but many were from the social work and counseling professions.

But, to judge from press reports, the effectiveness of the commission was debatable, even if Dupre proclaimed it to be an unqualified success. In Feb. of 2002, he wrote to the 127 parishes about the recent spate of allegations of abuse against priests in Boston. He said that: "…thanks to that initiative [the Misconduct Commission], we are in a relatively good position…".

But, testimony from victims paints a different picture.

Follow-up and financial settlements seemed to be wrapped in mystery, and progress could be sluggish. Returning now to the accuser of Malboeuf mentioned earlier, the diocese in 2002 had yet to compensate the victim, though the allegations had been on the books since 1988. That's a 14-year wait.

Not only that, but the victim accused the Misconduct Commission of stalling in order to weaken his case. He told a reporter for the Boston Globe that it was suggested that his retention of an attorney might lead to "complications". The commission urged him to seek counseling, instead. After he hired a lawyer, a Diocesan lawyer offered the man $20,000 in compensation. This figure is often seen in negotiations, since it is the limit for damages that charities and non-profits must pay out – the so-called "Charitable Immunity Cap".

The victim complained that the amount of the offer and the advice of the commission conspired to deny his rights: "I was very naïve. It turns out they strung me along so the statute of limitations expired. I can't file a suit, but they won't offer a settlement that comes anywhere near the amount of money it cost myself and my family."

In the end, his lawsuit became part of the 2004 settlement. He received an award some 16 years after he notified diocesan officials, and around 40 years after the abuse.

In another case, a victim said he brought his complaint of molestation by Rev. Richard Meehan to the commission prior to spring, 2002. At that time, Meehan was employed in chancery offices after being removed from parish work for abuse allegations. The victim said that the commission did not keep him up to date on its investigation, and failed to notify civil authorities of the alleged abuse. He also said members of the commission told him that the priest was a sick man – that he should forgive the priest, pray for him, and move on. The victim eventually filed suit against both the priest and the Diocese. Both suits were settled in 2004.

By the early part of 2002, the fallout from the Boston abuse scandal, in which 500 cases were brought forward, was beginning to prompt questions about Misconduct Commission proceedings in the Springfield Diocese.

In Feb. of 2002, the commission reported that in the past three years they had considered four cases of misconduct, but none were of a sexual nature, and none were substantial enough to refer to law enforcement. Bishop Dupre told the press that no priest had been removed since 1994, and that the diocese had not faced a lawsuit in more than five years.

But all of that apparent calm was to change within a few months.