March 10, 2006

Vatican decides not to defrock retired Monsignor Battista

Telegram & Gazette


WORCESTER— The Vatican has decided against defrocking Monsignor Leo J. Battista, who surrendered his clinical social worker’s license in 1991 after admitting that he had sexual relations with a client when he was her therapist.

The Vatican recently told Bishop Robert J. McManus that Monsignor Battista is permanently barred from ministry and cannot present himself as a priest, Raymond L. Delisle, diocesan spokesman, said yesterday. Monsignor Battista, 83, is retired and listed in the official diocesan directory as living at Southgate in Shrewsbury. His last parish assignment was pastor of St. Anna parish, Leominster.

“The Holy See, through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has reviewed the case of Rev. Monsignor Leo J. Battista, and has recently informed Most Rev. Robert J. McManus, Bishop of Worcester, that Monsignor Battista is to be permanently prohibited from any type of priestly ministry and may not present himself as a priest. He is to spend his remaining days in prayer and penance,” Mr. Delisle said after speaking with the bishop.

Mr. Delisle said the Vatican action did not result in defrocking Monsignor Battista.

Retired Bishop Daniel P. Reilly testified in an April 2004 deposition, when he was still bishop in Worcester, that the diocese was seeking laicization — defrocking — of Monsignor Battista and that he started the process at the request of one of the monsignor’s alleged victims.

Monsignor Battista, who was a licensed social worker and former head of Catholic Charities for the diocese, signed a three-page consent agreement with the state Board of Registration of Social Workers in 1991 and admitted that he had an improper sexual relationship with a client.

A former Sister of St. Joseph, Nancy Norbert, filed a civil suit against the diocese stating she had been sexually assaulted by the monsignor during the 1970s and 1980s when she entered a counseling arrangement with him. Donna M. Spencer, a former Sister of Mercy, said in a 1993 interview with the Telegram & Gazette that she also had an improper sexual relationship with Monsignor Battista. She said he had been acting as spiritual adviser and counselor when she was a young nun in the order.

Mr. Delisle said Bishop McManus told him that other laicization cases involving diocesan priests are pending, but he declined to state who they were.

“Cases have been sent to Rome for their review. We cannot speculate on what Rome’s determinations will be or their recommendations on each priest’s clerical state. We are waiting for further direction or notice on each case,” Mr. Delisle said.

A bishop has authority to remove a priest from service but only the Vatican, with approval of the pope, can laicize a priest. Some priests voluntarily seek laicization for various reasons, including a desire to marry. Others are removed involuntarily because of misconduct.

George “Skip” Shea of Uxbridge said this week that he had formally applied to Bishop McManus to begin laicization proceedings against the Rev. Thomas H. Teczar and the Rev. Robert Shauris, whom he said sexually abused him as a teenager. Mr. Shea received $10,000 from the diocese about two years ago to settle his lawsuit alleging sexual abuse by the two men.

An artist, Mr. Shea has a one-man show called “Catholic (Surviving Abuse and Other Dead End Roads)” which he recently presented in New York City and in the Boston area. Mr. Shea, who has said he is generally pleased with the response he has gotten from Bishop McManus when he met with him regarding his alleged abuse, said he contacted the chancery about starting laicization proceedings against the priests, and he was told he needed to make a formal request. He sent the formal request this week to the bishop.

Records of the Telegram & Gazette and records assembled by Waltham-based Bishop Accountability, an organization of Catholics who are archiving the sexual abuse scandal throughout the United States, and a count by Worcester Voice, which tracks clergy sexual abuse in the Worcester Diocese, shows a total of 23 living diocesan priests who are retired or on administrative leave after being publicly accused of sexual misconduct. That count does not include accused priests who are members of religious orders.

Two of the 23 priests, the Rev. David A. Holley and the Rev. Robert E. Kelley, are in prison after being convicted of sexual abuse of minors.

The Rev. Joseph A. Coonan has not resigned his position as pastor of St. John Church, Worcester, but is on administrative leave from the diocese after several men alleged misconduct when he was teaching and counseling in Oxford. Last week, he was charged with assaulting his elderly mother and his sister at their home in Oxford, and he was arraigned in Dudley District Court.

Diocesan priests are eligible to receive financial help from the diocese as required under the church’s canon law. The diocese does not have to support or subsidize priests who are laicized and are no longer priests.

The diocese said in a 2003 report to the American bishops’Abuse Tracker Review Board that it knew of 45 priests who were the subject of credible allegations of sexual misconduct from 1950 to 2003.

Mr. Delisle said the diocese has declined to say how much money the accused priests are receiving, but he said the amount is “in part” recorded as a lump sum in the diocesan financial report under the priests financial assistance fund.

Under that fund, the diocese paid $340,562 in fiscal 2005; $349,457 in fiscal 2004; and $270,000 in fiscal 2003. Mr. Delisle said some of this money also would go to priests on leave for reasons other than misconduct. Priests placed on leave can receive medical insurance through the diocese. In the 2004 deposition, Bishop Reilly testified that Rev. Teczar was receiving $554 a month from the diocese, along with medical insurance.

“The situation for each priest on leave is evaluated in light of our canonical responsibility to not abandon them. Each case is dependent upon its needs and in keeping with those canonical responsibilities,” Mr. Delisle said.

No priests in the Worcester Diocese accused of sexual misconduct have been laicized. While laicization is the term used in the Catholic church, it means the same as defrocking.

Bishop Michael J. Cote of the Norwich, Conn., Diocese confirmed this week that he received word that Pope Benedict XVI had laicized Bernard W. Bissonette, who allegedly abused the late Thomas Deary when he was assigned to St. Mary parish in Putnam. The defrocking of Mr. Bissonette, who was last known to be living in New Mexico, was done by request of Gene Michael Deary, brother of Mr. Deary, and his family. Bishop Cote made the presentation personally to the Vatican on why Mr. Bissonette should be laicized.

Posted by kshaw at March 10, 2006 07:19 AM