PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – When the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence gave the late Rev. Robert Marcantonio his 16th and final pastoral assignment in 1989, he’d already been accused of sexually abusing minors multiple times over the previous two decades.
Marcantonio, who died in 1999, started out at Sacred Heart Church in West Warwick in 1967. Within three years diocesan leaders were alerted that he had molested multiple boys, according to documents compiled by the group BishopAccountability.org.
Rather than remove Marcantonio from ministry, however, the diocese sent him to Iowa. He returned to Rhode Island in 1975 and resumed active ministry, spending four years at St. John Vianney Church in Cumberland and then a decade at Rhode Island College, along with overlapping assignments at the University of Rhode Island, Bryant College and the U.S. Navy Reserve. More abuse allegations followed.
The Providence Diocese finally removed Marcantonio from ministry in 1989, according to a list of “credibly accused” priests released Monday by Bishop Thomas Tobin. His alleged misconduct was hardly a secret: a year after his removal, Marcantonio was the subject of an explosive investigative report on WPRI 12 that led then-Bishop Louis Gelineau to revoke the station’s right to televise Thanksgiving and Christmas Masses.
The new list of 50 Rhode Island priests and clergymen credibly accused of molesting minors since 1950 suggests Marcantonio’s treatment was not unique. A Target 12 analysis reveals the individuals were assigned to 185 Rhode Island institutions, including churches, schools, hospitals and Catholic youth organizations.
The accused priests served in 32 of Rhode Island’s 39 municipalities, ranging from parishes in smaller towns to 16 separate institutions in Woonsocket, 17 in Warwick and 45 in Providence. No single institution saw more of them than St. Mary’s in Cranston, home to a parish and a school: eight priests on the list, including Marcantonio, were assigned there between 1953 and 2001.
Over the 22 years leading up to his removal, Marcantonio served as a pastor at five parishes, six colleges, a high school and a seminary, spanning three states. Survivor advocates say such frequent reassignments were a common trend for abusive priests.
“Moving around predators was typical,” said Tim Lennon, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.
In Providence, six accused priests were assigned to the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul between 1931 and 1988, and six pastored Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church between 1936 and 1981. They were among the 17 churches served by the late Rev. Charles Dolan, another priest on the list, during 40 years in active ministry that stretched from the presidencies of Herbert Hoover to Richard Nixon.
The list contains no details about the underlying accusations, so it’s unclear how many children the diocese believes each of the 50 priests victimized, or where the alleged abuse took place. Attorney General Peter Neronha indicated Monday there also may be other credible accusations that were never reported to the diocese. Tobin disclosed during a 2007 court deposition that there were 125 accused priests named in sealed church files at the time.
The transferring of abusive clergymen has become known as “priest shuffling,” which critics say is what the Catholic Church did during much of the 20th century when sex abuse was alleged. (The Providence Diocese says it now forwards all accusations to the state police, the local police department where the accusation originated and the attorney general.)
“Some of them have been moved 15 times, 12 times, 13 times, 16 times – that speaks thunder,” said Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee, D-Narragansett, who sponsored a newly enacted law that extends the statute of limitation on childhood sex abuse to 35 years.
“There’s a problem with the priest when they’re moved that often,” added McEntee, whose sister, Ann Hagan Webb, has said she was molested by a priest as a child.
Diocesan spokesperson Carolyn Cronin pushed back at that generalization, saying reassignments were “common to enrich a priest’s vocation with diverse educational and pastoral experiences.”
“Hundreds of good and faithful priests have been reassigned or transferred to different parishes and special assignments throughout their years in ministry,” she said. “It would be a grave disservice to paint them with a broad brush implying that their reassignment indicates any type of wrongdoing.”
Not all priests bounced around. The Rev. Richard Holden served at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Coventry from 1971 until his death in 1985. (He was accused posthumously, according to the diocese.) The Rev. Anthony DeAngelis, whom Webb has accused of molesting her when she was a child, pastored the Sacred Heart Church in West Warwick from 1936 to 1979 — the same church where Marcantonio started out.
But most others moved far more often and received a new assignment every few years, including the Rev. Paul Charland, whom the diocese named without any explanation of the allegations against him.
Charland — who is now 74, and did not respond to a request for comment — served between 1971 and 2011 in Providence, North Kingstown, Pawtucket, Cumberland, Coventry, Woonsocket, Tiverton, North Providence, Foster, Cumberland and Woonsocket, according to the diocese’s list.
Charland was “removed from ministry” on Aug. 26, 2011, according to the list. That phrase was not, however, used the following week in the diocesan newspaper’s regular roundup of priest appointments across Rhode Island.
The paper’s Sept. 1, 2011, appointments list said only: “Rev. Paul A. Charland from pastoral ministry to nursing homes in the Providence Area to Senior Priest status while continuing to reside at Regina Cleri Residence, Providence with restricted faculties, effective immediately.” (Regina Cleri is a home for priests located next door to St. Joseph’s Church on Hope Street.)
Cronin, the diocese’s spokesperson, said Charland “was fully removed from ministry and could no longer function as a priest” in 2011. But she did not respond to follow-up questions about whether he still has senior priest status now, or whether his current and former parishioners were notified that he had been removed due to credible abuse allegations.
Charland is one of at least four living clergymen on the diocese’s list whose allegations are not well documented, illustrating the lack of context provided about the underlying accusations. The list provides only the names, birthdays, current status and assignments of the 50 accused.
The scant detail is already raising more questions, and is concerning to those who want to stop future abuse from happening.
“Only by knowing what went wrong to enable abusers in the past can we best know how to prevent similar situations in the future,” said Zach Hinter, SNAP executive director, in a statement.
Tobin said Monday he wanted to release the list to show the church’s hierarchy has nothing to hide. But Webb said she doesn’t buy it, and Lennon questioned the bishop’s motives given the mounting number of dioceses that have recently released similar lists.
“They could have released the names years ago, five years ago, 10 years ago,” he said. “They are releasing names because the church has been exposed by outside forces … not because of any moral interest in the welfare of victims or the safety of children.”
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook