January 16 - 23, 1 9 9 7

Bye-bye, Bishop

As abuse scandals mount, the Vatican appears ready to oust Rhode Island bishop Louis Gelineau

by Jody Ericson

PROVIDENCE, RI -- On January 26, 1972, after being closed for three months for a $3 million renovation, the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul reopened in full splendor. Monsignor Louis E. Gelineau was being ordained as bishop, and the Catholic Diocese of Providence welcomed him with a celebration fit for royalty.

With pursed lips and piercing eyes, the 43-year-old cleric from Burlington, Vermont, took his seat on the altar at the appointed hour. In one hand, he held his crosier. He wore a miter on his head and a heavy, gold-plated cross around his neck. Two of Gelineau's cousins, also priests, helped celebrate the Mass, while his mother carried the sacramental wine to the altar. Gelineau smiled affectionately at her as she made her way down the aisle.

Gathering his robes around him, Gelineau then stood to deliver his sermon. In the clear and resonant voice that would become his trademark, he talked of how the Narragansett Bay had divided Rhode Island until the state erected a bridge. As Rhode Island's new Catholic bishop, he, too, wanted to build bridges -- spiritual ones.

"It takes only the wisdom to know our problems, the willingness to attack them, and the courage to struggle for their solutions," he declared.

Gelineau's predecessor, the Most Reverend Russell J. McVinney, had died five months before, at age 72, and left a legacy of Catholic traditionalism. By contrast, Gelineau seemed to possess the energy and charisma to bring the Church into the 20th century. As such, he became one of the most politically active bishops in the nation.

He did strengthen bridges to some groups, such as those opposing abortion and the death penalty, but he also scorned gays and women seeking more influence in the Church. Perhaps no one has felt more painfully cut off from the Church under Gelineau's reign, though, than those parishioners claiming to be victims of sexual abuse by clergymen. To date, some 40 rape and molestation suits have been filed against 13 priests in Rhode Island. Some of the cases date back to the 1950s, but they have continued into Gelineau's reign. For the most part, the bishop has downplayed these complaints and, victims allege, has even helped hide them from the public.

In a sense, Gelineau's reaction to the accusations - or, more accurately, his lack of reaction - has provoked more ire and disillusionment from the victims and their families than the alleged molestations did. And now, criticism of the diocese as insensitive and even culpable has become so fervent that Gelineau's superiors in the Vatican may be unnerved. The growing controversy may explain why the bishop, according to a Phoenix investigation, is expected to retire this year, at the relatively young age of 68. No official announcement has been made.

Gelineau certainly has not handled the abuse crisis in Rhode Island as well as Church officials of other states have. For example, in October 1991, Joseph Bernardin, the much-revered Chicago cardinal who died this past November, held a press conference to announce the convening of a special commission to study the mistakes his diocese had made in handling abuse complaints. He also announced that he had relieved five accused priests of their duties.

In contrast to the cardinal's open acknowledgment that the Church was at fault, Gelineau and the rest of the Providence diocese attempted to attribute the problems in Rhode Island to a few troubled priests. Although any single case could be written off as human frailty or failing, the cases considered as a whole paint a picture of extreme misconduct ranging from the assault of young boys to the sexual molestation of teenage girls. Yet the breadth of the state's abuse crisis is difficult for the public to comprehend. Specific sexual acts by priests are rarely enumerated in the press. Priests found guilty are convicted of general "sexual misconduct."

Gelineau could hardly have been ignorant of the abuses from his vantage point at the head of the diocese, say lawyers for the victims. He must have known, they say, and is therefore partly responsible for the extent of the abuse.

Dale O'Leary, a conservative Catholic columnist for the Providence Journal-Bulletin and an ardent opponent of abortion rights, says Gelineau is not to blame for the magnitude of the crisis. If the bishop has made mistakes, she says, he has done so only as a result of inexperience with temporal realities. Indeed, the problem of pedophilia encompasses two issues with which he is probably uncomfortable: sex and psychology.

"When Bishop Gelineau was called to be a bishop, all that was required was that he be a good man," O'Leary says. "Then all this stuff broke, and I'm convinced it was totally outside his realm of possibility."

But others who take a less tolerant view of Gelineau contend that, like the CEO of a corporation, Gelineau saw his primary duties as protecting the Church's assets and his priests' reputations. As a result, say plaintiffs, he endangered countless children.

"There's no question in my mind that when it comes to clergy abuse, Louis Gelineau, based on the way victims there [in Rhode Island] have been treated, has been among the least sensitive bishops in America," says David Clohessy of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

This past September, attorneys for the plaintiffs filed complaints in both state and federal court accusing Gelineau of shielding accused clergy. Plaintiffs allege that when Gelineau wasn't shrugging off complaints about priests, he was transferring priests to new parishes without warning.

"This [the abuse] happened multiple times by multiple priests," says Carl DeLuca, of Providence, an attorney for the plaintiffs. "If you take the totality of the situation, you realize this must have been a huge problem and the diocese must have constantly been doing damage control."

According to the state and federal complaints, Gelineau reassigned the 13 diocesan priests accused of rape and molestation an average of four to five times each, thus involving a total of 61 parishes -- almost half the number in Rhode Island.

Worcester bishop Daniel P. Reilly is also a defendant in these complaints, along with several other former Providence diocese officials, such as Bishop Kenneth A. Angell, now of Burlington, Vermont. Once a vicar general in Providence, Reilly worked in Rhode Island from 1954 to 1975, when he became bishop of Norwich, Connecticut. He took over the Worcester diocese a little over two years ago.

In federal court, where the cases are moving more quickly, Judge Ernest Torres has already rejected several motions filed by Gelineau's attorneys to dismiss the complaint against the bishop and other diocesan officials. Issuing his decision in late December, Torres criticized the motions as "overly broad" and "incomprehensible."

Part 2

Jody Ericson is a staff writer for the Providence Phoenix; she can be reached at jericson[a]phx.com.