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cornwall

the inquiry


Cornwall Public Inquiry

The Boys of Assumption Parish

Laura Lynch, reporter

Penny Cadrain, editor

Bruce Edwards, technical producer

Peter Armstrong, Quebec interviews 

CBC Radio, June 28, 2002 

The Roman Catholic Church in the United States has been forced to address an issue that for years was covered up: sexual abuse and the priesthood. The Church faced a furor over reports it shuffled problem priests from one parish to another. 

The issue was dealt with at the highest levels. American bishops met in the Vatican, and then announced a new policy in Dallas – that priests who abuse would no longer be allowed contact with parishioners. 

CBC's Laura Lynch investigates the case of one Quebec priest who served in Massachusetts where he now faces 32 counts of indecent assault and battery against altar boys. 

A word of warning: some of the language used in this report is both graphic and disturbing.

 

Brian Corriveau stands in the clutter of his room. He pulls a piece of his past off the printer. It's a photograph of him and more than a dozen other altar boys dressed like angels in their white robes. 

"I'm actually standing on the seat of a pew 'cause the first row of pews, they're standing right in front of them," says Corriveau. "I'm standing right on top of a seat, that's why I'd be a couple of inches taller than my brother." Corriveau appears in the photo as a beaming chubby cheeked boy, hands clasped in a prayerful pose. Beside him is a smiling priest, also bedecked in white. They were smiles that Corriveau claims were masking a dark secret. 

Corriveau is now a stocky 36-year-old man with a thatch of brown hair streaked by only a few strands of grey. "You know, strict Roman Catholic family, my grandparents always went to church every week if not multiple times and we also went to church every single week and days of obligation, funerals weddings, you name it," says Corriveau. "It was a major part of my grandparents life and my parents life. They were all very religious." 

It's no surprise that when young Brian wanted to please his parents, he became an altar boy at Assumption Parish.  

"I could see in my parents' faces that they were very proud of me and they'd be smiling and they came up for communion, so I definitely enjoyed it," he says. 

But a new priest arrived in 1974. Corriveau says within weeks Father Paul Desilets, who came from Quebec and promised to teach young Brian to speak French, became the priest who began destroying his nine-year-old world. "He'd always make sure your zipper was up and then it progressed to the point where he'd always pull you to him, where he would pull you in and he'd reach around you and grab you right by your groin area so he could get you in and pull you close enough to fix the hassock and stuff," says Corriveau. 

Corriveau has terrifying memories of Desilets grabbing him by the crotch telling him it was time to measure his weight.  

"When he got you off the ground by a foot or two he would tell you how heavy you are while pinning you with his arms, like his elbows, and then fondling you for a few minutes and then he'd finally put you back down again," he says. 

Corriveau talks of repeated incidents of fondling and severe spankings. And then, he says, something else happened when he was helping at a wedding. "He just kind of pinned me in, and then he started playing with me again and I hadn't really had anything like this before, but he kept fondling me 'til I became aroused," says Corriveau. "I thought he was going to squeeze me until I popped and my eyes bulged open and I was trying to get loose and I couldn't get loose. "Sometimes when it was happening I was praying to God that I could be somewhere else or that he would stop. He was like six-foot-two, six-foot-three and a very big man and when you're three-something or four-nothing and you just look up to him and he's the hand of God, you just don't think about, you know, whatever he has to say that's the way it is." 

Corriveau claims the abuse lasted a decade and didn't end for good until Father Desilets left Bellingham to return to Quebec in 1984. Corriveau and his brother James, who also says he was targetted by Desilets, kept their secret for years. Then this year, with so many reports of abusive priests screaming from the headlines of Boston newspapers, Brian Corriveau contacted a lawyer. 

Jeffrey Newman, by now flooded with cases involving other priests, drove to Bellingham, talked to the Corriveaus, and filed a lawsuit. In the coming days, more and more men came forward. "I've talked to them, I've done detailed assessments of each and every claim," says Newman. "I've gotten verifications sometimes from other individuals who saw it happen. "The occurrences happened consistently over a period of time. This wasn't one or two occurrences with these boys, it happened over a period of years where they were afraid to tell their parents. In some cases they did tell their parents and the parents didn't come forward."  

All of Newman's clients are suing Desilets and the Archdiocese of Boston. In their formal complaint, the Corriveaus claim the Archdiocese knew or should have known Desilets posed a danger and failed to protect them. They also allege Desilets was sent away for psychological counseling on several occasions between 1980 and 1984. The cases have yet to be proven in court, but preliminary settlement talks are underway. 

In most of these kinds of cases in Massachusetts, civil lawsuits are the only legal option open to victims. The state's law normally bars criminal charges from going ahead if the allegations are more than six years old. But this case is different. That's because the statute of limitations only applies to people who live in Massachusetts. Because Desilets left the parish, the state and the country for good in 1984, he can still be prosecuted. 

That's where Bellingham sergeant Richard Perry comes in. The burly officer has watched and listened as a steady parade of men, most his age, have cried like children before him. "To listen to grown men as upset as they were or are and then to hear about their problems that they've had throughout their entire life because of this is very difficult," says Perry. "This case is a priority, probably the biggest priority I have right now, and I want to see it right to the very end." 

In many ways though, the criminal case is only beginning. There are now a total of 32 charges against Desilets. Half are for indecent assault and battery against child under the age of 14. The rest are for offences against older teenagers. 

Massachusetts prosecutors are asking Canada to extradite Desilets to face trial. Desilets' Boston lawyer has refused to comment. But  Jean Savard will. He's the Canadian lawyer who represents the Order of St. Viateur in Montreal, the Order that includes Desilets. "Father Desilets is entitled to the presumption of innocence," he says. "He's going to be turning 80. His health is fragile and I think we should let justice follow its course." 

Savard says the priests' superiors reacted properly at the time to what he calls vague allegations. "They thought it best in the interests of everyone to have him exercise a ministry where he would not have access to children," says Savard. Desilets himself hasn't spoken publicly in months. Savard refuses to say whether the retired priest is still living in Riguad, west of Montreal. 

 

The Boston Archdiocese hasn't made any public comments about the case. But the Archdiocese's own personnel records on Father Desilets help piece together some of the sad history of the case.

The file contains an exchange of correspondence between Boston church officials and the superiors of Desilets' Montreal order. It begins in 1985, one year after Desilets left Bellingham, with a startling letter from the man who succeeded Desilets, Reverend Richard Matte.

The following are excerpts from the letters.

 

  October 15, 1985

  To: Reverend Pierre Goulet, Les Clercs de Saint-Viateur de Montreal 

 

  Dear Father Goulet, 

 ...I have been approached by several altar boys who have the same story to  tell. It seems that Father Paul has the habit of "touching" them in an  indecent manner. I bring this to your attention so that you can be aware of  the problem and take whatever steps you feel are required to help Father Paul and prevent this from happening to other young people...   

  In prayer,

  Rev. Richard O. Matte  

  

  

 

  November 11, 1985

  To: Reverend Richard Matte, Assumption Rectory

 

  Dear Father, 

  ...It came as a surprise to us since we never heard of any complaint about   Father Paul during the many years he served in your Parish. On the contrary we heard only words of satisfaction.

 

  Nevertheless we thank you for informing us in such an important matter. Presently Father Paul is not involved with youngsters, but he deals only with adult people...

 

  We pray that all the good Father Paul has done in your Parish of the Assumption will compensate for the few indelicate gestures he might have done... 

 

  Truly yours in Christ,

  Reverend Roger Brousseau,

  Les Clercs de Saint-Viateur de Montreal 

 

  In the early 1990s, the Boston Archdiocese informed the Order that claims of abuse had surfaced again. The Order responded with concern. 

 

  January 20, 1993

  To: Most Reverend Alfred C. Hughes, Archdiocese of Boston 

  

  ...You inform me that further allegations have arisen...  Will further allegations lead to legal procedures?... 

 

  As for Father Desilets, he is still posted in our shrine dedicated to the   Virgin Mary and deals only with adults... 

 

  ...If there are new allegations, we need to have more information so that Father Desilets can explain his point of view, and, if necessary, defend himself, and of course get the legal, pastoral and psychological assistance he would need... 

 

In 1993, a former altar boy named Scott Coon met with a nun in Bellingham. A memo in the personnel file from that meeting shows Coon told her Desilets said the he would burn in hell if he told anyone about the molestation. 

The Desilets case certainly isn't the first instance of a priest who crossed the border in the course of his work only to leave a trail of allegations behind him. 

Earlier this year, two American priests were suspended from parishes in British Columbia after old allegations from their service in Ohio resurfaced. In Tucson, Arizona, church officials recently made multi-million-dollar settlements to victims of a Canadian priest who moved there from Ontario. 

Back in Bellingham, Canadian songbird Anne Murray is a popular choice for Catholics who like their music good and clean. Her CD is a big seller here at A Special Place, a store just down the road from Assumption Parish. The store is overflowing with religiously themed records, cards, even yo-yos and other toys. The store does a brisk business, which is no surprise since owner Gert Frankel says there are 24 Catholic churches within a 12-kilometre radius. The Desilets case came as a shock, but she believes the men who have accused the priest are in it only for the money. 

"If it happened that long ago and nothing has happened why bother now?" asks Frankel. "Why make the Catholic Church suffer like this? It doesn't make sense." But a customer listening nearby disagrees. "I think it's a good thing because it's going to save other youngsters from falling in to the same misery." 

Brian Corriveau says he's heard it all, the insults and the good wishes, from the people he's known all his life. He says none of it is easy, and it shows. As he relives his days at Assumption Parish, he starts to shake, then cry. He admits he'd rather not remember at all. 

"It's pretty good as long as I don't really think about it, and right now, I'm thinking a little too much about it," he says. "As long as I just talk about it and just kind of remove myself from it and if there were a couple of other people here like my brother, I wouldn't think about it as much." 

But on this night, his brother James has decided he cannot speak about the past. Corriveau says they've both been unable to have lasting happy relationships. He says they find it hard to trust anyone. 

Now the two live together with their sister in their parents' old house, just down the street from the parish they refuse to set foot in anymore.

 

 

 


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