PROVIDENCE — As an explosive allegation of clergy sexual abuse in Rhode Island emerged in a lawsuit filed Thursday, state prosecutors said they are conducting an exhaustive review of more than 100,000 documents related to the sexual abuse of children that have been turned over by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence.
The attorney general’s office is examining files going back 70 years to determine whether any of the cases warrant criminal charges — and whether there are any credibly accused clergy still in the ministry.
Prosecutors are also looking at how the diocese has been handling reports of abuse.
The latest stunning lawsuit, filed in Superior Court, alleges that the diocese had an “organized protection system” that used money and influence to pressure victims, families, and witnesses from seeking criminal investigations of abusive priests.
The complaint, brought by a man who says he was molested by the late Rev. Normand J. Demers, accuses the diocese of thwarting an investigation into the priest’s abuse of orphaned boys in Haiti more than 30 years ago.
Demers had touted his charitable work with children in Haiti and Central America and brought back young boys to stay with him in the rectory at St. Joseph Church in Providence as part of his “missionary” work.
In the suit, Robert Houllahan, 51, of Providence, alleges that he saw those boys while he was at the St. Joseph rectory, where, he says, he was molested by Demers and another man.
Houllahan is suing the diocese, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, retired Bishop Louis Gelineau, and St. Joseph Catholic Church of Providence. His lawyer, Timothy J. Conlon of Providence, has sued the diocese on behalf of dozens of sexual abuse victims over the years.
Conlon said he was thrilled that the attorney general’s office is conducting an independent review.
“I think it’s great that someone is looking at all of this, and I hope they’re looking at it from the big picture point of view,” he said Friday. “This is not an accident — this is something created intentionally and it could be relied upon by the perpetrators for their protection. That’s the problem.”
That’s something Conlon addresses in the lawsuit, which notes past cases of other priests who have been convicted of abusing children, with documents showing how the diocese privately discussed the allegations and what to do about them.
“That shows part of a pattern and an organization with a system of protection,” Conlon said. “These people knew they had a problem and were attempting the manage the problem.”
Demers was never convicted, but the lawsuit lays out past accusations against him and outlines why he was never prosecuted. It also accuses Demers of trafficking boys as far back as the 1970s, through “programs” meant to help impoverished boys from foreign countries — bringing them to stay with him at the rectory, where he hosted parties with some boys in diapers and had them pose in sexually suggestive photographs, the lawsuit said.
The diocese responded Friday that Houllahan’s lawsuit was “stoking allegations from several decades ago.”
“Demers was removed from ministry in 2002 following a credible allegation of abuse. His removal and investigations, both by Rhode Island and Haitian civil authorities, were well-documented in the local media at that time," the diocese said in an e-mailed statement. "All allegations against Demers have been reported to law enforcement. For over twenty years it has been diocesan policy to report each and every allegation of clergy sexual abuse of a minor — regardless of credibility — to law enforcement.”
Conlon said the diocese was downplaying its inaction — and its actions.
“This is about accountability, sending a message, and taking people who have blood on their hands and bringing them to justice,” Conlon said.
Authorities in Haiti had arrested Demers in 1989 and investigated allegations that he was sexually abusing boys at an orphanage and school he’d founded. The orphanage’s leaders had reported the allegations to police in Haiti and Rhode Island, and forced Demers to resign.
Then, the diocese stepped in — pushing witnesses to withdraw their complaint in Haiti by promising Demers would be prosecuted in Rhode Island, the lawsuit says.
Instead, as soon as the case in Haiti was dropped, Demers returned to Rhode Island, where the diocese assigned him to a new parish in East Providence.
Demers was later suspended, in March 2002, after the diocese got a complaint that he’d molested a boy at Our Lady of Fatima Hospital in North Providence 35 years earlier. According to media reports at the time, the diocese asked parishioners to pray for Demers and chided reporters for being “too too willing” to publish the allegations.
A month later, the diocese acknowledged that it had been told in 1989 that Demers had sexually abused boys at the orphanage in Haiti.
The former director of the orphanage said that auxiliary bishop Kenneth Angell, on behalf of then-Bishop Louis Gelineau, had promised her that Demers would face prosecution in Rhode Island if she signed a document allowing his release from Haiti, according to the lawsuit.
She was adamant that the boys had told her that they considered Demers a threat. They told her that Demers touched them and forced them to undress in his bedroom, on the pretense of trying on clothes. She was disturbed when he said he needed a teenage boy in his bedroom because “he gives good massages,” according to the lawsuit.
The diocese said it received a document from Haitian officials saying the claims were unsubstantiated.
Demers denied the allegations and later retired. He died in 2018 and was placed on the diocese’s list of credibly accused priests last summer.
Although the diocese is turning over its records to the attorney general’s office and posting the names of credibly and publicly accused priests, Conlon, Houllahan’s attorney, said the church hierarchy has shown little regard for victims of sexual abuse.
He accused the diocese of “whitewashing” the abuse, and said it was only through civil litigation that the public had learned about the extent of sexual abuse.
The lawsuit lambastes [the] Catholic leaders for an indifferent attitude toward the toll of abuse. It cites the words of a West Warwick priest who, in speaking about abortion, said that “nobody ever died from pedophilia.”
That made Conlon think about one mother’s despair that she’d allowed her parish priest to sleep in the same room with her young son. The priest molested the boy, who later committed suicide, he said.
“Having lost clergy abuse victim clients to suicide, we, on behalf of victims of such abuse, must insist that the Church face its responsibilities for its role in the devastation they caused,” Conlon said.