Ex-judge upholds sex abuse claims against late bishop

  • The late bishop Christopher J. Weldon ROMAN CATHOLIC DIOCESE OF SPRINGFIELD

  • Former Diocese of Springfield bishop Christopher J. Weldon, who died in 1982, was accused by a Chicopee man of sexually abusing him in the 1960s when he was 9 or 10. ROMAN CATHOLIC DIOCESE OF SPRINGFIELD

  • Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 6/24/2020 5:53:28 PM

SPRINGFIELD — Those investigating sexual abuse complaints against late bishop Christopher J. Weldon failed in their duties to report their findings to prosecutorial authorities, a reluctance likely caused by Weldon’s “prominence and revered legacy in the religious community,” retired Judge Peter A. Velis wrote in his investigative report into the allegations released to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield.

In his 373-page report, released Wednesday, Velis criticized how the Diocesan Review Board handled the initial allegations of sexual abuse against Weldon, calling the response both “weak” and “woefully deficient,” and finding that the allegations by a Chicopee man are legitimate.

“These accusations are unequivocally credible,” Velis said at a press conference at the Bishop Marshall Center Wednesday afternoon, noting that there will be a great deal of pain felt by members of the diocese for calling out the bishop’s “evil misdeeds.” Velis added that he allowed for the highest standard of proof, beyond a reasonable doubt, to be fair to the bishop, who died in 1982 and has been unable to defend himself.

Velis wrote that he was disappointed in how investigators assessed the complaint.

“In response to my charge in assessing how the diocese responded to the complainant, I conclude from the myriad of evidentiary factors expressed in my final report that from the inception of the complaint through the follow-up process, the procedure was greatly flawed,” Velis wrote.

Archbishop-designate Mitchell T. Rozanski, who appointed Velis, said he accepts the findings and as such ordered the immediate removal of Weldon’s name from the rehabilitation facility at Mercy Medical Center, that his remains be moved from its current cemetery to a less prominent location, and that all honorable mentions and photos of Weldon in churches, offices and other buildings be taken down. In addition, Weldon’s name will be placed on the diocese website alongside other priests, deacons and bishops, who have faced credible accusations of sexual abuse of children or adults.

Rozanski apologized to the victim and what he called chronic mishandling of the case since 2014. “In almost every instance we have failed this courageous man,” Rozanski said.

Velis, meantime, is recommending a new system of looking into reports of abuse that is based on checks and balances, transparency and accountability and actions more than words so that the diocese can handle these in a competent manner. This new investigatory process, Velis said, is the key so people can trust the findings and put faith again in the Catholic Church.

He is also recommending the appointment of an administrative supervisor of investigations who would oversee investigatory processes and preserve products of that investigation.

Those recommendations go to the 10-person independent task force chaired by retired Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Daniel A. Ford and Irene Woods, the founding executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Franklin County and the North Quabbin. That task force was established in May by Rozanski.

Ford said actions of the diocese have been disgraceful, but that the healing process can begin thanks to Velis’ report.

“He has given us the foundation on which to build,” Ford said.

“I would like to think a new day has dawned in the Diocese of Springfield,” Ford added.

Jeffrey Trant, director of the diocesan Office of Safe Environment and Victim Assistance, has said that the Velis report will be the starting point.

For Olan Horne, a clergy abuse survivor in Chester, the Velis report contains truths. “I have absolutely no disagreement with Judge Velis or his opinions,” Horne said.

But Horne said he has been providing the same advice and three years ago sent Pope Francis an outline of how to improve the deficiencies in investigations.

Any credit for improving how accusations are handled should go to those who have suffered at the hands of priests and clergy.

“The catalyst for change were the survivors,” Horne said. He said Rozanski shouldn’t be taking credit for change and that he has shown no respect for those who have survived abuse.

Velis paints a concerning picture in his report, revealing “the existence of a parallel universe of order priests and women of the religion which while operating within the diocese, fall outside of the authority of the bishop to implement disciplinary measures.”

In June 2019, the diocese filed an initial report of a claim of abuse by Weldon with the Hampden district attorney’s office, coming after Rozanski heard directly from the Chicopee man who said Weldon was one of several clergy in the diocese who sexually abused him in the early 1960s, when he was 9 or 10.

Velis interviewed the complainant, members of the review board present at the June 13, 2018 hearing, Rozanski, diocese investigators and employees, former altar boys and others, in finding out how the matter was handled. The report details graphic descriptions of the allegations made against Weldon and two priests.

“The processing of the complaint was replete with differing evaluations of the allegations and included conflicting analyses, opinions and conclusions,” Velis wrote. “This reflected a clear lack of industry and concern for the quality of the entire process in terms of the scope of the investigation.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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