Abuse Allegation Against Former Springfield Bishop 'Unequivocally Credible,' Says Investigator | WAMC

Abuse Allegation Against Former Springfield Bishop 'Unequivocally Credible,' Says Investigator

Jun 24, 2020

   

Retired Judge Peter Velis briefs reporters on the findings of his nearly year-long investigation into a sexual abuse allegation against the late Springfield Bishop Christopher Weldon.
Credit WAMC

        A retired state judge hired by the Diocese of Springfield to investigate a claim of sexual abuse by the late Bishop Christopher Weldon issued his report today. 

       After a nearly year-long investigation that included a series of interviews and reviewing documents, Judge Peter Velis said he came to an “informed and indisputable conclusion”:  the allegations against the highly revered religious leader are “unequivocally credible.”

   "So you all know and it is clear, the standard of proof I used is the highest standard--beyond a reasonable doubt," Velis said at a news conference that coincided with the public release of the report.

    Weldon served as bishop in Springfield for 27 years and died in 1982.  The accusation against Weldon was made in 2014 to the Diocesan Review Board by man who said he was sexually abused in the early 1960s by Weldon and two other priests, who are both deceased.

    Last year, after speaking with the victim, Springfield Bishop Mitchell Rozanski – now the Archbishop-elect of St. Louis – made a formal complaint about Weldon with the Hampden County District Attorney and asked Velis to investigate the allegations.

   The nearly 400-page report from Velis was released Wednesday on the diocesan website. Velis, who conducted the investigation with the help of retired Springfield Police detective Sgt. Dennis O’Connor, said the diocese fully cooperated.

  "The investigation took us to many spaces, places, and thoughts. The investigatory proceedure was right and rigorous," said Velis.

   Velis said he found there had been a reluctance to fervently pursue the allegations against Weldon due to his prominence and revered legacy in the religious community. 

    "The whole process that was  employed in assessing and eventually concluding in respect to these allegations was woefully deficient," said Velis.

    Rozanski said Weldon’s victim was notified in advance of the public release of the Velis Report.

   "I want to sincerely apologize to this victim," said Rozanski.  "Not just for the terrible abuse he endured as a young child that haunts him to this day, but I want to apologize for the chronic mishandling of this case time and time again since 2014."

    The Springfield Diocese now views Weldon as a disgraced former bishop.

   " This finding is clearly justified, but it is painful for many Catholics, including myself to hear, as yet again their church has failed to live up to its promise and obligations," said Rozanski.

   Rozanski said Weldon’s name will be added to the official list of priests credibly accused of sexual abuse. All pictures of Weldon will be removed from church property. His remains will be relocated to a less prominent spot in the diocesan cemetery and marked by a simple gravestone. Rozanski also called for Trinity Health to remove the former bishop’s name from its rehab facilities.

   To respond to future complaints of clergy sex abuse, Velis is recommending the Diocese adopt what he called a system based on checks and balances along with transparency and accountability.

  He recommended appointing an administrative supervisor of investigations who would oversee the entire process and make sure evidence is preserved.

  "I can't emphasize enough how I hope they follow what I would like to call dictates, but I don't have that authority, so they are suggestions," said Velis.

  In anticipation of the Velis report, Rozanski late last year appointed a task force to recommend changes to how the diocese responds to clergy sex abuse complaints.

  The panel is chaired by retired Judge Daniel Ford.

"Judge Velis has made some very thoughtful recommendations about ways to improve the process going forward," said Ford. "He has given us the foundation on which to build."

   In light of the Velis findings, Jeffrey Trant, who heads the diocesan Office of Safe Environment and Victim Assistance, said past claims of alleged abuse would be looked at to see if further investigation is warranted.