WELLESLEY - Today, the Elm Bank estate, nestled in a bend of the Charles River, is a state park and the home of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. A generation ago, the setting was no less idyllic for grammar school graduates who came here to a high school seminary, full of hope they would someday be ordained as Catholic priests.
Some were. Others, however, left the tiny school after they were sexually abused by members of the Stigmatine Fathers, the religious order that ran the seminary. Their accounts describe sexual misbehavior by an extraordinary percentage of the priests who were entrusted with their care.
The school had only 10 to 15 teachers at any one time, according to the alleged victims. Yet four men who contacted the Globe said they were molested by five Stigmatines at the school - four priests and a religious brother - during a six-year period. One seminarian said he was victimized by three of the priests, and two of the others said they were each molested by two priests. The men attended the school between 1955 and 1961.
Officials of the order knew about the sexual abuse at the time but did nothing to stop it, according to interviews with victims and a document the religious order turned over to one victim. One Stigmatine priest who tried to stop the abuse was twice transferred after alerting superiors to what was going on.
“We went there thinking it was a holy institution,” said John Vellante, who attended as a freshman in 1958 but left a year later. “It turned out it was a hunting lodge, and we were the captured prey.”
The multiple allegations of sexual misconduct by the Stigmatine clerics are surfacing as the leaders of Catholic religious orders, gathered in Philadelphia for a national conference that ends today, grapple with the orders’ role in a national sexual abuse crisis that has focused mostly on diocesan priests. Almost one-third of the estimated 47,000 Roman Catholic priests in the United States belong to religious orders.
The Rev. Gregory J. Hoppough, the provincial superior of the Stigmatine order, which is based locally in Waltham, referred all questions to attorney Kenneth H. Zimble, who did not return several phone calls from the Globe. The order, known formally as the Congregation of the Sacred Stigmata, has about 550 priests worldwide, according to its Web site, but only about 20 active in the United States, according to a priest. The order’s name is drawn from the term used to describe the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ.
Vellante, along with two others who attended Elm Bank, told the Globe they were molested by the Rev. Leo P. Landry, who left the seminary in 1959 and subsequently served as a parish priest in Somersworth, N.H. Landry, who is now 72 and lives in Rochester, N.H., left the priesthood in 1972.
Landry, who faces several civil lawsuits in New Hampshire for allegedly abusing minors, referred questions to the Diocese of Manchester. A diocesan spokesman said there was no record of complaints about Landry during his years in Somersworth.
The Stigmatines also face accusations of sexual abuse outside of Elm Bank. According to two attorneys, six other men have alleged that they were molested as boys by either the Revs. Richard J. Ahern or Joseph E. Flood, both of whom are dead, according to the attorneys. The alleged abuse occurred in Springfield, Agawam, and in New Hampshire during approximately the same time period as the abuse at Elm Bank.
A spokesman for the Norfolk district attorney said the order had turned over the names of alleged Elm Bank abusers, but no investigations had been opened because the alleged crimes are beyond the statute of limitations. Sources said the order had turned over the names of Landry, the Rev. Leo T. Riley, and Brother John Fowler.
Elm Bank was once part of a thriving tradition of minor seminaries that today has largely faded from the landscape. Minor seminaries educate high- school-age boys, while “major” seminaries, such as St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, are for college-age men.
As recently as the 1960s, there were between 50 and 70 Catholic minor seminaries scattered across the country, supported by local dioceses or religious orders. Today, there are only two that board students and another six day schools, according to the Minor Seminary Association.
Most minor seminaries failed because of drastically declining enrollments, the cost to the diocese of maintaining the schools, and because relatively few of their graduates became priests.
In addition, there have been several sex scandals. St. Thomas Aquinas in Hannibal, Mo., a diocesan minor seminary, shut its doors this spring after its former rector, Bishop Anthony O’Connell, was publicly accused in March of sexually abusing a student at the school in the 1970s. After the allegations surfaced, O’Connell resigned as bishop of Palm Beach, Fla.
Nowadays, the notion that high school-age boys should begin formal seminary training has few adherents. “Minor seminaries were inherently flawed because the kids were too young,” said Ray Higgins, coauthor of a 1993 report to the Franciscan order on sexual abuse at St. Anthony’s, a minor seminary in Santa Barbara, Calif., that closed in 1987.
Boys that young often aren’t ready to elect a vocational track. They also don’t have a clear enough sense of their own sexuality to be put in such a setting, Higgins said. Because of their confused feelings and isolation from their own families, the boys were that much more vulnerable to the sexual predators who took advantage of them, according to Higgins, whose own son was abused by two priests at St. Anthony’s.
The former students described Elm Bank as, on the surface, an idyllic place. The school was tiny, with no more than 30 students in all four grades. Classes might have two or three students, and some of the teachers were brilliant, said the men. The boys rose early for Mass and worked hard in class, but there was time for sports, prayer, and contemplation. They lived dormitory style in a century-old 40-room brick mansion or in other buildings on the property.
The Stigmatines bought the former estate in 1941 and ran the school and summer camps until shortly before they sold it to the state in 1971. The property is now known as Elm Bank Reservation and is a Metropolitan District Commission park and the headquarters of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.
But while the men said they enjoyed the educational atmosphere and the facilities, they also suffered incalculable damage from the men who allegedly molested them.
Abuse ranged from single incidents of fondling to several years of sex. All four men said they have contacted the order about the abuse. Two of the four have received financial settlements in recent years.
Vellante, 57, a Boston Globe sportswriter who retired a year ago, said Landry, under the guise of providing the 13-year-old with sex education, would have him drop his pants and would masturbate him. Almost always, immediately or within days, Landry would don the stole priests use to hear confessions and have Vellante confess to the sin he had just committed.
“I know it sounds weird,” Vellante said in an interview yesterday. “But we were brought up to believe the priest was God and that he was to be revered and obeyed, that anything he said was right and that he could do no wrong.” Vellante has not filed a lawsuit but said he believes Landry deserved to be prosecuted for what he did.
Two other former students, David Leonard and a successful Massachusetts businessman who asked to remain anonymous, said they told school officials about the abuse at the time it was happening, but nothing was done.
Leonard, 58, who was born in South Boston and now lives in Frankfort, N.Y., said he was molested twice by Stigmatines - once as an 11-year-old at a summer camp and again at Elm Bank. Leonard said he told the Rev. Joseph Henchey, his prefect, and Henchey tried to have the abusers punished but was instead punished himself by the order.
At a meeting arranged with the Stigmatines two weeks ago, Henchey told Leonard that, after he learned of the alleged abuse, he had unsuccessfully pressed the order to deal with abusive priests. Instead, Henchey said the order at least twice transferred him after he complained, according to Leonard and the Rev. Geoffrey J. Deeker, a Stigmatine who attended the meeting. Henchey, who did not dispute the story, declined to comment.
Leonard said he has had mental health problems for decades. In 1978, he doused himself with gasoline and tried to set himself on fire outside a Stigmatine building in Newton. But the matches wouldn’t light. He was committed to a state mental hospital for nearly a year. He has reached a financial settlement with the order.
The businessman, who recently brought his complaint to the order, received in reply a letter which acknowledged that he told them of the abuse when it happened and that no one had investigated. The businessman said he was molested at the school for four years by Riley, a teacher. While at school, the businessman told the Rev. Charles F. Egan, at the time the head of the order in North America, and the priest was transferred. When the businessman this spring raised more questions about the abuse, the order questioned Egan.
“I did not conduct any further investigation,” Egan wrote in a letter, a copy of which the order gave the businessman. “I cannot remember sharing this information with others, or entering this matter into any record.” He did not even tell the victim’s parents.
Riley died in 1995. The businessman said he attended the priest’s wake because he wanted to see him dead in his casket. The businessman said he was also molested by Landry and another Stigmatine.
John Neely, formerly of Newton and who now works in Texas for the state prison system, said he was abused by two Stigmatine priests. Neely and his attorney said the Stigmatines settled his claim for $15,000.
Neely, 52, said that when he was 14 he was masturbated by Ahern and later, while at a summer camp at Elm Bank, by Landry. He said he sunk into years of alcoholism and recently ended his third marriage.
He said the abuse twisted his moral compass for years. “When a trusted authority figure violates the innocence of a child, what they do is turn north to west, so you never know where you are going,” he said. “You trust untrustworthy people and don’t trust trustworthy people.”