Springfield bishop appoints co-chairs of sex abuse task force

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The bishop of Springfield in Massachusetts has announced the appointment of two social workers to lead an independent task force responding to sex abuse.

Bishop William Byrne, who took the helm in Springfield in Dec. 2020, announced Monday that clinical social worker Irene Woods and Orlando Isaza, a social worker and community activist would co-chair the task force. The goal of the task force is to draft a report on how the diocese can better respond to cases of sex abuse. 

The task force had originally been chaired by retired Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Daniel Ford. 

Woods, formerly vice-chair of the task force, is the founding executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Franklin County and North Quabbin, and serves on the city of Greenfield’s domestic violence task force, the Greenfield Recorder reported. 

Co-chair Isaza, formerly a member of the task force, previously served as a program officer at the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts and was a faculty member at the Smith College School for Social Work. 

The task force mandate is to advise the bishop on how to acknowledge the trauma of sexual abuse; to create a transparent system for handling allegations; to ensure local church leadership is held responsible for failing to protect children and other vulnerable people; to hold those credibly accused of sexual abuse to account; and to prevent sexual abuse in the future, the Recorder reported. 

The task force is expected to release a report “by the end of the summer” based on interviews with abuse survivors and diocesan clergy, as well as on community surveys. 

The Diocese of Springfield is facing criticism over its handling of historical sexual abuse cases, including an allegation of abuse against a deceased former bishop. 

Former Bishop Mitchell Rozanski, now archbishop of St. Louis, has admitted that the diocese mishandled the abuse case in question, which the plaintiff says he first brought to the diocese’s attention in November 2014.

In a lawsuit filed in Hampden County Superior Court in Springfield on Jan. 28, an alleged abuse victim named only as John Doe, a former altar boy, alleged that Rozanski and other diocesan officials met his complaint with “deliberate indifference,” which caused him further trauma. 

The alleged victim, identified as John Doe, claims he suffered trauma as a result of the diocese’s mishandling of an abuse allegation he brought against the late Christopher Weldon, who served as bishop of Springfield from 1950 to 1977. 

Doe, a former altar boy, alleged that Bishop Weldon, along with two priests of the Springfield diocese, repeatedly abused him in the 1960s, and said he first remembered his abuse in 2013. Weldon died in 1982. 

During June 2019, Bishop Rozanski commissioned an independent investigation, led by retired Superior Court Judge Peter A. Velis, into the handling of the allegation against Weldon. The 373-page report concluded that Doe's claims he was molested by Bishop Weldon were “unequivocally credible.”

The suit alleged, however, that public statements by the diocese following the 2018 diocesan review board meeting did not acknowledge the abuse allegation against Weldon because of conflicting reports from a diocesan investigator. The court this month denied the diocese’s motion to dismiss the case. 

In June 2020, following the Velis report’s release, Archbishop Rozanski apologized for the “chronic mishandling of the case, time and time again, since 2014.” Both the Archdiocese of St. Louis and the Diocese of Springfield have, to other publications, declined to comment on pending cases. 

Rozanski created the task force in May 2020. In announcing the group’s creation, the bishop said the diocese “has not always provided a meaningful nor pastoral response to victims of abuse,” and stated his hope that the group would help the diocese to “improve our policies and procedures.”

This is not the first time abuse concerns regarding a bishop have surfaced in the Diocese of Springfield in Massachusetts.

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In 2004, Bishop Thomas Dupre became the first Catholic bishop in the U.S. to be indicted on criminal charges for sexual abuse. The case did not go to trial due to the statute of limitations on some charges, and because the grand jury decided not to indict on other charges, the Republican reported. Bishop Dupre was Bishop of Springfield from 1995 to 2004.

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