Activist plans hunger strike to compel abuse report response from Vatican

  • Olan Horne, right, plans to begin a hunger strike Thursday in an effort to compel the Vatican to acknowledge that it received messages from families in the Springfield Diocese seeking a review of how local Catholic officials handled aspects of the clergy abuse crisis. At left is Richard Koske of South Hadley, who says he was assaulted by a priest and whose case is addressed in the appeal for intervention by Pope Francis.  LARRY PARNASS/THE BERKSHIRE EAGLE

  • Olan Horne of Chester plans to begin a hunger strike Thursday in an effort to compel the Vatican to acknowledge that it received messages from families in the Springfield Diocese seeking a review of how local Catholic officials handled aspects of the clergy abuse crisis. Horne was one of the first clergy abuse survivors to speak out in the Boston Archdiocese and later met with Pope Benedict XVI. LARRY PARNASS/THE BERKSHIRE EAGLE

The Berkshire Eagle
Published: 2/19/2019 11:23:46 AM

A western Massachusetts man says he will stop eating until the Vatican acknowledges it received pleas for help from local families riven by clergy sexual abuse. 

Olan Horne of Chester, one of the first survivors to go public about past abuse in the Boston Archdiocese, said he will stop taking food at midnight Wednesday — the start of a meeting of bishops in Rome on the issue — and drink only fluids until a response comes. 

Horne's pledge poses serious risks to his health and worries his supporters within the Springfield Diocese, where he continues more than a decade of activism in Massachusetts on behalf of families seeking redress from the Catholic church.

"I'm ready to stand up for what I believe," Horne said. "I'm going to bring it to a head. Somebody has to bring attention to this."

Horne, 59, said his medical condition will be monitored during his fast. He plans to sign a do-not-resuscitate order. He is the father of grown children in their 30s and lives with a partner.

David Baillargeon of Huntington, a Catholic deacon and close friend, said his chest tightened and he felt sick to his stomach when Horne told him in a phone call of his plan. 

"It really hurt me to hear him say that," Baillargeon said. "I'm concerned about him."

In April 2008, Horne was granted an audience with Pope Benedict XVI to discuss the clergy abuse crisis while the pontiff was visiting Washington. Horne has advocated for dozens of individuals and families affected by clergy abuse, including cases that remain before officials in the Springfield Diocese. 

Horne said he received assurances from the pope that the church would work to correct its legacy of harm to children. By fasting, Horne said, he will be demonstrating his faith "in the papal promise I received."

"When the Pope apologized, I thought he was sincere," Horne said of his meeting a decade ago with Pope Benedict XVI, who resigned in 2013. 

Horne says he believed that his meeting with the pope, as well as his acquaintance with Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley, provided an open channel on the issue of clergy abuse. 

Last fall, those channels inspired Horne to gather messages from several western Massachusetts families to send to Pope Francis. Horne and Baillargeon delivered the messages, as well as one family's gift, to O'Malley's office to relay to Rome. 

Horne says he was assured the materials were forwarded to the Vatican. Terrence Donilon, a spokesman for O'Malley, did not respond to requests to confirm whether the messages reached Pope Francis.

And Monday, Donilon did not reply to a message seeking comment on whether the Boston Archdiocese plans to intervene in light of Horne's planned fast. O'Malley holds a special role in the church on the issue of clergy abuse. He was named by Pope Francis to help guide a reform commission on the problem. 

An email Monday to the Vatican's representative in the United States about Horne's planned hunger strike did not bring a response.

Horne notified O'Malley of his intention to stop eating in an email Saturday that began, "Brother Sean."

Horne wrote that he is taking responsibility for his role in advocating for local families.

"I do not believe Rome will answer but I have faith our voices will prevail and be heard," Horne wrote. "Thursday, as I said, I stop taking food till the letters are acknowledged and or returned. There is no going back for anyone. We must all go forward or we will all perish in this one by one. Do not pray for me brother Faith without acts is dead."

In an interview, Horne said he believes O'Malley will not let him down.

"I trust in O'Malley, and in what he stands for," Horne said.

But he said that given the nature of the Catholic hierarchy, his issue lies with Rome. In the past week, Horne said, he has contacted Catholic officials in an effort to confirm that the families' messages reached Rome. 

He said he feels an obligation to get the families an answer, one way or another.

"I am now asking the pope directly, not the Vatican, not O'Malley," Horne said in a statement addressed to the Vatican that he shared with The Eagle. "I await a response to the pleas of those that were hurt. I await the acknowledgment of the truths you received in the form of those letters and testimonies of the survivors in Springfield."

He added, "I was made a papal promise, we all were. Can we still believe in those promises now? I am holding the Holy Father responsible to those promises he made me and this community," a reference to Pope Benedict XVI. "A decade has passed, survivors are still unable to be heard even in their own diocese."

On Feb. 11, Horne joined the audience at St. Joseph Church in Pittsfield when Rozanski convened what the diocese called a listening and dialogue session on clergy abuse. The media was not allowed to attend. 

Last Wednesday night, Horne was asked to leave a meeting of the diocese's review board, which had convened to consider the case of Richard Koske, a South Hadley man who says he was drugged and sexually assaulted by former Rev. Eugene Honan, an allegation the diocese has found credible. Honan previously served a church in North Adams.

Koske and his daughter, Rebecca, both say they support Horne's decision to begin a fast, though it worries them. 

Rebecca Koske wrote a letter to Pope Francis that was included in the packet delivered to O'Malley's office. She described her father's assault in the rectory of the now-closed St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Northampton in 1996 or 1997.

"You have given people so much hope by your actions and the inclusiveness you preach," Rebecca Koske wrote to Pope Francis. "My father is still suffering, and I'm humbly asking for your help."

Another letter was written by the mother of a man abused by Paul Archambault, a Springfield priest who died by suicide in 2011 after his abuses were brought to light. 

Horne said he feels an obligation to the families whose hopes he raised about a papal response. 

"I want them to have a voice. My job is to get them a voice," he said. 

Horne was abused as an early teen by the late Joseph E. Birmingham, one of the most notorious pedophile priests in the Boston Archdiocese. Birmingham, who died in 1989 before the scope of the clergy abuse in the archdiocese came to light through reporting by The Boston Globe, assaulted Horne while assigned as a priest to St. Michael's Parish in Lowell.

In his own written message to the Vatican, Horne asked that officials temporarily suspend the Most Rev. Mitchell T. Rozanski, bishop of the Springfield Diocese, and review his handling of clergy abuse cases. 

Horne said that with his fast, he is not asking for action on that request, only for the messages from families to be acknowledged. 

Mark Dupont, the spokesman for the Springfield Diocese, said in January the bishop was aware of Horne's appeal to the Vatican.

"He is certainly within his right to take this action, and we would stand ready to cooperate with any inquiry by the Vatican should one be undertaken," Dupont said at the time.

Baillargeon, the Catholic deacon, said that while the fast worries him, he admires Horne's determination.

"He just doesn't hold anything back. This is a perfect example of that. Putting his life on the line," Baillargeon said. "He's an extraordinary man and he's helped so many people."

In 2017 and 2018, Horne helped James C. Graham answer a question regarding the identity of the man's true biological father. With Horne's help, and the backing of Cardinal O'Malley, the body of the Rev. Thomas Sullivan was exhumed so a DNA sample could be taken. Test results showed the priest was Graham's father, as Graham had suspected for decades.

Baillargeon said he believes Horne's request could be easily met. Officials with the Vatican need only return the letters sent to them last fall, signaling that they received them in the first place.

"It seems too easy to save Olan from all this," Baillargeon said. "That's really opening the door for them to do something right."

Baillargeon said friends asked him to consider talking Horne out of beginning the fast. He said that isn't possible.

"When he makes up his mind to do something, that's it," he said of Horne. 

Horne said medical updates will be provided about his condition in the weeks ahead.

"I'm in pain," Horne said. By fasting, he hopes to reach the leader of the Catholic faith, Pope Francis. "This is a message in a bottle. I hope he gets it."


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