Dupre's Legacy

These missing fiscal years matter, among other reasons, because they're part of the unfulfilled promise of Bishop McDonnell's administration. It may even be accurate to say that they are the culmination of it.

After Bishop Dupre left under a cloud in Feb. of 2004, the experience was so traumatic for parishioners of the Diocese that McDonnell was positively welcomed.  McDonnell was gregarious where Dupre was guarded, New York City garrulous where Dupre was a repressed hometown-boy, plus McDonnell was an experienced public administrator at Catholic Charities in NY.  In contrast,  Dupre was a behind-the-scenes canon lawyer, grim and closeted; even McDonnell's robust size seemed a startling contrast to that of the Mr. Peepers-like Dupre, and a change for the better.

Alas, it  hasn't worked out that way.  It was McDonnell, not Dupre, who in 2004 orchestrated a hasty 7 million dollar conclusion to the 50 some odd sexual abuse cases that Dupre had been sitting on for years.  It was McDonnell who then fought the insurance lawyers tooth and nail to recover the 7 million (while continuing to hold 59 more victims hostage during the three-year trial).  And it was McDonnell who managed to reduce the victim's awards by more than half in the second round, and in the process divert a half-million dollars meant for the settlement awards into the chancery treasury. In point of fact, McDonnell has out-Dupred Dupre.

When we turn to the missing FY reports, they seem the end-game of providing gradually LESS information, not more, each year that McDonnell has been in office.  An examination of the existing financial records will bear this out. All of this leads to suspicions of how genuine McDonnell's motives were in 2004 when he offered the 7 million settlement.  Was he the savior that many thought him to be?  Or, is it possible that this seemingly generous gesture was more a case of being forced to do something - anything - to get away from the unholy spectacle of a veteran bishop being indicted for child abuse?  Was he merely cutting his losses, losses that he fully intended to make good in pursuit of 7 million in reimbursements from the insurance companies?

If so, he was disappointed.  The money recovered was, as we know, only 3.5 million.  This fact leads to legitimate questions about what the insurance companies learned during the discovery phase of the trial, and suggests why the pattern of secrecy and denial persists until now.  To this day, there has never been a jury verdict of a sexual abuse charge against the Diocese of Springfield (the closest to this was when the former Fr. Richard Lavigne copped a plea in 1992).  It was Dupre's stated goal that a case going all the way to a verdict would never happen. This is one part of the Dupre legacy that has been carried forward by McDonnell with great fidelity. Every one of the 105 abuse cases in the 2004 and 2008 settlements have strings attached – conditions which perpetuate secrecy.


Today's topic is the recent report on WAMC public radio by reporter Charlie Dietz.  A link is here.

We zero in on the comments made by Dalton pastor Fr. Chris Malatesta.

According to Malatesta, the Springfield Diocese fosters democracy:

"So, parishes have parish councils, the Deanery has a lay Deanery council,  and then the diocese has a lay pastoral council, a bishop's council, so it actually kind of gives layers in all three of those groups to communicate one to the other, so, hopefully, it gives everybody a voice in the church."

Malatesta describes the diocesean parish council plan.  The plan sounds good on paper - and then the other shoes drops: knowledgeable Catholics will confirm that the plan is not put into action.  Many parishes do not have parish councils.

It is impossible to know how many do or don't because of the general incompetence of diocesan record-keeping.  And, of parishes who do have parish councils, most are only for show. We know this from the many comments of outraged members of parish councils who were out of the loop when vital decisions about the future of their parish were made, i.e., whether they were to be merged, left alone, or made extinct.  The public record preserves these comments as they were made to the reporters of the Springfield Republican following on the heels of church mergings and closures.  The trend is particularly acute in the latest rounds from late 2009, which focused on the Springfield city area.  Note how many of the negative comments are from the members of parish councils, and ponder what this says about the way that councils actually operate in the Diocese.

In other words, the reality of the plan is something other than the description of the plan.  In one word, Malatesta is guilty of hypocrisy when he suggests that the parish council system is an example of democracy.  We will focus more on this in upcoming posts about the Parish Pastoral Council Guidelines as issued by McDonnell.  For now, let's return to the role of "denial" in understanding what makes the Diocese tick.

In following Catholic matters over the last few years I have read much about other dioceses in action.  Through their press releases, their litigation, their web sites and news articles about how they work, I can safely say that I have not found one of them that surpasses the Springfield Diocese in a backward-looking, denial-oriented approach to administration. Springfield church officials do not just dislike free speech.  They hate and fear it.  I think this is closely tied to the particular circumstances of our sexual abuse scandal.

While Dupre had successfully sat on the growing numbers of victims who came forward from around 1995 to 2000 or so, encouraged by the 17 Lavigne settlements of 1994, this strategy could not be maintained.  The victims became increasingly assertive and restless, and he was not able to keep them from emulating Boston in pressing for lawsuits (as opposed to counseling and private settlements), nor could he prevent them from pressing claims against the Diocese for negligence in hiring (as opposed to filing suit against priests for the original crimes).  There was a new focus on the culpability of those covering up the abuse, which was being seen now as a systemic problem.

This background is perhaps necessary to understand that denial - truculent, pervasive denial - was seen as early as 1996 or so as the essential strategy to minimize damage to the Diocese.  What happened next, when Dupre himself was accused by a grand jury in the fall of 2004 of both abuse and covering it up, was a sort of metastasizing of this denial mode. It became so central that it was soon not even recognized as a defense.  I suggest that for church officials it was seen as "the way we  respond" in order to cope with the sometimes overwhelming psychological pressure. The idea seemed to be: "...we have to deny that we knew about any part of it.....else we may not survive at all...".

That's my take on why denial has become so central to the Diocesan outlook. It is important to make the distinction between church officials saying "abuse never happened" and "if abuse happened, we didn't know about it".  The latter is the defense that is most important, because it relieves them of  accountability for negligence. Negligence differs from a civil charge of abuse because of its criminal nature, and because statutes of limitation may not apply. There is also the possibility that in some jurisdictions (like Maine) that negligence may not be a valid defense against parts of the charitable immunity doctrine, which has been a bulwark against claims for the Massachusetts bishops.

Returning to the quote by Malatesta, we recognize in his description of parish councils a parroting of the "official" version and we understand how his promotion of this version inevitably leaves him open to charges of hypocrisy. But why would he promote a flawed "official version" so at odds with reality, in the first place?

There is more background needed.  The Bishop, in his corporate persona, often confuses himself with other CEO's like Jack Welch or Lee Iacocca.  One of his special projects is the cultivation of a sort of hick Vatican mentality, whereby he need not answer to any authority - neither that of the Catholic laity or Presbyteral Council (priest's group) in church affairs,  nor that of civil authorities like district attorneys or historical commissions in state matters.  He is essentially above the law.

He then instructs his pastors in the same governance mode as applied to their parishes, which then operate like fiefdoms.  The pastors have their marching orders, to be sure, but assuming they avoid controversy and the front page of the newspaper, they are allowed discretion to run their parishes pretty much as the Bishop runs the Diocese - that is to say, autocratically.

If they want to have parish councils, fine.  If they don't want parish councils, that, too, is fine.  This last item flies in the face of what the Bishop has laid down on paper, which as I said will be the subject of future posts.  All I mean to point out here is that this pattern is instilled from the top down. 

Out in the field, some pastors get better results, and better reviews than others.  But all of them share this trait: they rule their parishes by an unwritten set of rules that is obscure to lay viewers but clear to their clerical counterparts.  They are part of the same team, and everyone knows the unofficial team rules.  They follow them, or suffer the consequences.

It is certainly true that Malatesta seems well-liked and successful in his post.  And many other pastors have also been able to thread the needle, i.e., get some genuine lay participation and yet retain enough control to please the Bishop.  But, it is equally true that many pastors are disliked, some almost violently so.

These, especially when they actively suppress parish councils and free church speech, certainly can't be held up as examples of what the church is all about. And, the widespread failure of the parish council system is an indictment of the governing style of the Bishop.  And yet, according to Malatesta, this parish council structure is supposed to prove that everyone in the church has a voice in governing the church.  These are outrageous statements because they are not true.

Once again, as in the denial strategy of the Diocese toward sex abuse, we see that the official version is one thing, and the unofficial version (the real one) is quite another.  Once again: the result = hypocrisy.