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Spotlight Report

Cleared priest questions process

Alleged victim ID'd wrong man

By Sacha Pfeiffer, Globe Staff, 2/28/2003


The Rev. Ronald Bourgault answers questions during a press conference at St. Zepherin Church in Wayland. (Globe Staff Photo / Wendy Maeda)

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WAYLAND - In the end, after eight months of waiting, it was all so simple. It took only a resourceful lawyer and a trip to the Boston Public Library to make it happen.

Yesterday, a day after learning that the man who had accused him of molestation had admitted he had the wrong man, the Rev. Ronald L. Bourgault basked in a joyous welcome back to St. Zepherin Church in Wayland, which he had been forced to leave after the Archdiocese of Boston received the allegation against him last June.

Taking the lectern at the parish hall at an afternoon press conference, Bourgault received a lengthy standing ovation from more than 30 friends, parishioners and colleagues who gathered to celebrate his return. He read aloud the letter from the alleged victim's lawyer, and was soon encircled by well-wishers eager to offer handshakes and hugs.

Bourgault could have learned a lesson of bitterness from his experience. Instead, he said, he learned one of compassion.

Dressed in black clerical garb and speaking slowly and deliberately, he said he harbors no animosity against his accuser, whom he has offered to meet, and pledged to help the man try to find his actual abuser.

''I feel closer to victims of abuse than ever before,'' he said, ''for I too have been victimized. I too have had my life turned around and my reputation ruined. While their suffering is truly unique to them, I share with them deep wounds that will take a lifetime to heal.''

For eight months, Bourgault had languished in disgrace, barred from ministry.

With few details about the complaint and scant contact with church officials, he had little chance to defend himself. He trusted that the church would swiftly act on his case, and demurred at advice that he hire his own attorney. But as months wore on and his status remained unchanged, Bourgault, 64, said he ''felt angry, frustrated, helpless and anxious about my future.''

His accuser has been unable to remember the name of the priest who abused him, but he pointed to Bourgault as his molester when shown a photo of priests who served in the 1960s at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Beverly, where the alleged abuse occurred.

The man also knew his abuser as a priest who had succeeded another parish priest who had died. The Rev. George J. Butera, the current pastor at St. John, incorrectly described Bourgault as that replacement priest. In fact, Bourgault had served at St. John at the same time as the priest who later died, information that could have been easily established from church directories.

Two weeks ago church officials told Bourgault they had reached an impasse with the alleged victim's lawyer. The church said it would reinstate him, but not until they had given the lawyer two weeks to appeal.

That marked the first time Bourgault was told that his accuser even had a lawyer, and he gave that lawyer's name to an attorney, Thomas J. Fay. Working pro bono, Fay contacted the victim's lawyer, Neila J. Straub. Fay also obtained a simple, but critical fact in a single trip to the library. After consulting archdiocese annual directories from the late 1960s he shared with Straub the dates of service of priests assigned to St. John during that time, information that cleared Bourgault.

The alleged victim's admission came several days after church officials, saying they could not substantiate the allegation, had formally reinstated Bourgault. Bourgault's reinstatement made him the third Boston Archdiocese priest returned to ministry after being placed on leave after an allegation of sexual misconduct.

Fay said Bourgault's experience underscores the need for trained investigators to research allegations, and encouraged the archdiocese to recruit professional investigators to help resolve claims.

''Not having any information was one the hardest things for me,'' Bourgault said, ''because I didn't know what to do and I couldn't defend myself.''

Asked if church officials had adequately investigated the complaint, Bourgault replied quietly, ''No, I don't think they did.''

Responding later to Bourgault's remarks, the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, an archdiocesan spokesman, said: ''Could this have been handled in a more timely fashion. Absolutely.''

But he said the archdiocese has since added personnel to ''clear the logjam'' of pending cases.

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at pfeiffer@globe.com

This story ran on page B3 of the Boston Globe on 2/28/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.


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