Springfield diocese vows to improve response to sexual abuse claims

  • Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski of the Diocese of Springfield speaks at a press conference Tuesday afternoon at the diocesan pastoral center, where he detailed the organization’s “newly reorganized” Safe Environment & Victim Assistance Office. Rozanski was joined by the office’s director, Jeffrey Trant, and Compliance Coordinator Li Ling Waller.  STAFF PHOTO/JACQUELYN VOGHEL

Staff Writer
Published: 6/18/2019 5:36:51 PM

SPRINGFIELD —The Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield has announced the launch of a “newly reorganized” Safe Environment & Victim Assistance Office in the wake of a report that the diocese attempted to cover up molestation accusations leveled by a former altar boy against a longtime bishop.

The office’s responsibilities will include “building on a system” that includes measures such as CORI checks; abuse awareness training for clergy members, religious and lay employees, and all church volunteers; and other church education and awareness programs, Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski said at a press conference at the diocesan pastoral center Tuesday afternoon.

Jeffrey Trant, a social worker whose background focuses on children and vulnerable adults affected by trauma, will lead the office.

The diocese already undergoes annual audits to check its compliance with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, Rozanski said, but he added, “We know we can do better.”

There are “aspects of our response that clearly need improving,” Rozanski said.

Trant said at the press conference Tuesday that he is “mindful of the legacy of clergy sexual abuse in Springfield,” and will first focus on familiarizing himself with past practices, policies and procedures in the organization in order to find opportunities for improvement.

“Whenever a victim comes forward, our job is to listen, and to hear, and to understand their experience,” Trant said.

The diocese’s announcement also follows Rozanski’s attendance at a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops gathering last week in Baltimore, where bishops voted to establish a national hotline for reporting sexual abuse over the phone or online.

In May, Pope Francis issued a church law stating that all Catholic priests and nuns must report bishops accused of sexual abuse, or of mishandling reports of sexual abuse, to church authorities.

Allegations that a bishop either mishandled an abuse report or abused someone will be investigated by a “totally independent” third party, Rozanski said.

Diocese criticized

Earlier this month, the Berkshire Eagle reported that the Diocese of Springfield attempted to repress molestation accusations by a former altar boy against a bishop, Christopher J. Weldon, according to a former member of a review board for sexual abuse allegations against the diocese.

The former altar boy, of Chicopee, served in the 1960s, and allegedly leveled the accusations at a June 2018 meeting. Weldon died in 1982.

The diocese told the Eagle that the survivor did not come forward with sexual abuse allegations, but three who attended the June 2018 meeting said the survivor did accuse Weldon of abuse, according to the Eagle. The review board issued a statement in September 2018 describing the accusations as “compelling and credible.”

The review board’s chairman, John M. Hale, later released a statement disputing the claim that the survivor had accused Weldon of abuse, the Eagle reported, but the survivor responded that Weldon had played a key role in his abuse.

On Thursday, Trant will attend a meeting with Rozanski and the sexual abuse survivor.

Rozanski said Tuesday that “the pain caused by the terrible abuse of children by Catholic clergy continues to be felt throughout our faith community.”

“It is felt first and foremost by the victims and their families, but that pain is borne by us all,” he said. “Let me be clear on how deeply sorry I am for the past failures of our church to respond to the needs of victims and to protect them from abuse.”

Response faulted

Criticism of the diocese’s response to clergy sexual abuse has also extended into Hampshire County in the past. In March 2018, the Gazette reported that Richard Koske of South Hadley faulted the diocese for its response to his reported sexual assault as an adult by the Rev. Eugene Honan, then a pastor at the former St. Mary’s Parish in Northampton, in the mid-1990s.

The diocese acknowledged the allegation as credible almost 20 years later, but Koske said that Honan continued to carry out religious duties and received an award from Holyoke Catholic High School officials afterward.

In 2018, Springfield Diocese spokesman Mark Dupont told the Gazette that the school award was an “unfortunate circumstance, which stands in contrast to our efforts to hold those who have abused accountable for their actions.”

Honan retired in 2010, and in 2011, then-bishop Timothy McDonnell removed Honan’s “priestly faculties to minister outside the diocese and allowed only supervised ministry when he was in the diocese,” Dupont wrote to the Gazette in a 2018 email, adding that Honan was also ordered to leave his rectory post-retirement.

But in March 2018, Koske said he remained upset with a lack of communication from the diocese after he told the church that he did not feel his allegations had been properly addressed.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.
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