March 5, 2002 – Maine Parish Agonizes Over a Priest’s Confession

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
The New York Times

March 5, 2002 Tuesday
Late Edition – Final

SECTION: Section A; Column 1; National Desk; Pg. 1

LENGTH: 1227 words

HEADLINE: Maine Parish Agonizes Over a Priest’s Confession

BYLINE: By PAM BELLUCK

DATELINE: ST. AGATHA, Me., March 1

BODY:

The Catholic roots of this far-northern valley are about as deep as they get. More than two centuries after Catholics marked the land with a large cross, people in and around this town named for a martyred saint are still steeped in the faith.

So naturally they were stunned last month when the Rev. Michael Doucette, under orders from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Maine, announced that 22 years ago he was “intimately involved” with a 15-year-old boy in another parish.

“You could hear a pin drop in that church,” said one parishioner, Carole Plourde.

But since then, the community has faced what many consider an even more painful trial. The diocese asked the parish council here to decide whether it wants to keep Father Doucette or have him removed.

After the accusations of child molesting by priests in Boston, several dioceses, including New Hampshire’s and Philadelphia’s, immediately suspended any priests ever accused of abusing children. Maine’s diocese took a different approach, ordering Father Doucette and another priest who had acknowledged sexual misconduct to make public confessions. Bishop Joseph J. Gerry asked the parish councils to vote on what should be done, although he will not necessarily heed their recommendations.

Parishioners here have especially agonized over a decision because both priests are from the St. John Valley, an isolated stretch of potato farms and paper mills where people carry centuries-old French names and salt their speech with French.

In recent weeks, diocese after diocese across the country have publicly acknowledged that they tried to rehabilitate priests accused of molesting children rather than remove them. St. John Valley offers a particularly stark example of one important factor in those decisions: a global shortage of priests.

One out of six parishes in the country now has no resident priest, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, up from 1 out of 30 in 1965.

Few places have been affected more by the priest shortage than this remote community a few miles south of the Canadian border. Four churches have closed here in the last five years and many priests cover several communities. Father Doucette is pastor of churches in St. Agatha, Frenchville and Sinclair.

While the diocese, 350 miles away in Portland, promises to replace the priests if they are removed, the spokeswoman, Sue Bernard, acknowledges there is “a very short pool” and no guarantee that replacements will understand French or this insular region.

“We’re an entirely culturally different area of Maine,” said Ryan Pelletier, the town manager of St. Agatha (called Ste. Agathe by locals). “I hear a lot of people talk about the diocese as the big Portland machine. I find it very strange that both priests are now in the St. John Valley.”

Curiously, the case of the second priest, the Rev. John Audibert of Madawaska, is less complicated for parishioners. Father Audibert, a valley native, had told them a few years ago. Many had already known because Father Audibert’s victim, 16 when he was molested 26 years ago in Caribou, Me., had become a victims’ advocate, publicly accusing the priest in 1993.

In 1999, there was more publicity when the victim, Peter Keaton, was convicted of molesting a 10-year-old boy, who in turn was accused of molesting a 3-year-old boy. But while a few people here see the case as evidence of a pernicious spiral started by priestly abuse, most parishioners have forgiven and stood behind Father Audibert who, like Father Doucette, declined to be interviewed.

People are struggling more in St. Agatha, where the usual winter past-times are ice fishing, racing dog sleds and betting on when the ice will melt on Long Lake.

For one thing, Father Doucette’s victim, David Gagnon, 37 and living in Ottawa, started talking about the abuse, which Mr. Gagnon said began in Biddeford, Me., and lasted three years. Mr. Gagnon, who broke a silence imposed by a lawsuit settlement because he believed the priest and the bishop had minimized the abuse, traveled 12 hours by bus to speak to the parish council.

Both sides were wary before the two-hour meeting on Feb. 23 in Sinclair’s firehouse, guarded by more sheriff’s deputies than for a governor’s visit. But Mr. Gagnon found council members welcoming and the council members said they found him respectful and genuinely hurt.

“This is uncharted waters,” said Kevin Lavoie, acting president of the parish council. “Do we feel that our priest has the ability to continue his ministry effectively?”

There is resentment of the diocese for bringing the matter up now.

“A lot of people here are very angry that the diocese threw those guys out there as fodder,” said Judy Paradis, 58, of Frenchville, a former state senator. “We don’t publicly confess our sins. We don’t expect our pastors to either.”

And instead of welcoming the chance to give express their views, many resent the matter being given to the parish council.

“I hear some people say, ‘Is this Pontius Pilate, handing it over to the people to let them make a decision?’ ” Mr. Lavoie, 34, said. Some question why the priests were not removed earlier and why parishioners were not told when Father Doucette came to the parish last year.

Ms. Bernard said that after the accusations were reported in the 1990’s, both priests were suspended and received treatment. She said they were not diagnosed as pedophiles, partly because there was no proof that either had more than one victim. When placed in new parishes, they were told to avoid children, she said, and a few parishioners were asked to monitor them.

The loudest view supports Father Doucette, saying he is dynamic, a “good talker,” and the abuse happened long ago, with no reports of recurrence. Some even suggest Mr. Gagnon was old enough to say no. And many say Catholicism is based on forgiveness — as is life in a town where everyone knows everyone.

“Who’s to cast the first stone?” asked Terry Ouellette, 56. “He without sin. The key is to forgive. It’s water under the bridge.”

Theresa Ringuette, 75, a parish council member, said Father Doucette might be a better man now, having learned from a big mistake.

“I might have done something 22 years ago that I’m not proud of,” said Ms. Plourde, 50. “I don’t know what the big hoopla about it is now.”

Some who favor Father Doucette’s removal were afraid to say so.

“If I did something like that, they would put me in jail,” said Frank Bycenski, 52, a nonchurchgoing Catholic who sells pigs’ feet, schnapps and sundries at the Naborhood Store. “Are priests above the law?”

Paul Bernier, who runs Paul’s Gas and Car Wash in Frenchville, said, “I heard someone say, ‘If anybody should be within the law, it’s a person of this stature,’ but they wouldn’t want to be quoted.”

Mr. Bernier, whose sons, 9 and 13, are altar boys, supports Father Doucette, saying, “You can’t excuse him for what he did, but he acknowledged it, he paid the price, and as far as I’m concerned he came through with flying colors.”

The diocese says Bishop Gerry will not keep priests where they are unwanted, but may remove them even if the parishes want them.

Either way, the scars will be deep.

“I am so torn by this,” wrote Don Levesque, editor of the St. John Valley Times. “It’s sad, but I’m afraid this is far from over. Let’s hope some good comes from somewhere in this story.”

URL: http://www.nytimes.com

GRAPHIC: Photos: The Rev. Michael Doucette was ordered to confess to parisioners. (Associated Press); David Gagnon, 37, says Father Doucette began molesting him 22 years ago in Biddeford, Me. The abuse went on three years, Mr. Gagnon says. (Jim Young for The New York Times)(pg. A20) Map of Maine highlighting St. Agatha: St. Agatha is in a remote area, where French salts local speech. (pg. A20)

LOAD-DATE: March 5, 2002

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