PROVIDENCE — A former Rhode Island Catholic priest has been indicted on sexual assault charges.
James Silva, 81, is charged with two counts of first-degree child molestation sexual assault and nine counts of second-degree child molestation sexual assault. He was charged after an investigation by the state attorney general’s office and the Rhode Island State Police. The allegations stem from alleged assaults of a boy under the age of 14 between 1989 and 1990, while Silva was interim director and assistant director at the Office of Ministerial Formation within the Diocese of Providence, Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office said Tuesday.
The charges come as Neronha’s office continues its review of decades of diocesan records.
“Our months-long, broad investigation of clergy child sexual abuse in Rhode Island has had, from its inception, two principal purposes: to prepare a comprehensive report of our findings regarding such abuse and the Diocese’s response to it, and along the way bringing individual criminal cases as they are developed, where the facts as alleged warrant them,” Neronha said in a news release.
Silva pleaded not guilty at an appearance in Providence Superior Court Monday. Bail was set at $50,000 with surety, meaning he has to post the full amount as a property bond or 10 percent in cash to secure his release.
Silva is included in the Diocese of Providence’s list of clergy credibly accused of sexually abusing minors. He was removed from ministry in 1993, the diocese says. According to Neronha’s office, he was laicized in 1993.
The Diocese of Providence said in an e-mailed statement Tuesday that it “remains committed to fully cooperating with law enforcement and the attorney general.”
Victims over the years have repeatedly cited the Diocese of Providence’s handling of Silva’s case as an example of the church’s negligence and malfeasance, which led to more children being abused.
According to court filings by plaintiffs’ attorney Timothy Conlon, then-Bishop Louis Gelineau was repeatedly warned about Silva in the 1970s and 1980s but didn’t do anything to stop him or protect children. Instead, he was transferred to parish after parish, 12 times in about 15 years. In 1981, a Catholic Navy chaplain told Gelineau about yet another victim, according to court records. Gelineau’s reply: “Oh, no. Not again!”
Silva was sent to a treatment center in New Mexico, but the diocese misrepresented his status in directories by saying he was “on duty outside diocese/advanced studies,” according to the court records.
When he came back, he was allowed to fill in for other priests, victims’ attorneys say. In 1991, while substituting for a priest in St. Theresa’s parish in Burrillville, he molested another boy, the civil records say.
He was charged with second-degree sexual assault and pleaded guilty in 1995, receiving a seven-year suspended sentence, according to court records.
Victims are continuing to sue the diocese now, often citing the Silva case as evidence that the church’s leadership could be held civilly liable as “perpetrators” of sexual abuse. A law passed in 2019 gives victims 35 years after their 18th birthday to sue “perpetrators” of child sexual abuse, even if the old deadline had already run out. The state Supreme Court is now considering whether institutions can be held liable as perpetrators of child sexual abuse.
According to Diocese of Providence records, Silva’s history of assignments from 1967 to 1991 were: Jesus Saviour Church, Newport, 1967-1968; St. Francis Xavier Church, East Providence, 1968-1969; Jesus Saviour Church, Newport, 1969-1971; St. Barnabas Church, Portsmouth, 1971-1972; Regional CYO Newport County, 1971-1974; St. Christopher Church, Tiverton, 1972-1974; St. Mary Church, Bristol, 1974-1975; St. Matthew Church, Cranston, 1975-1976; St. Joseph Church, Pascoag, 1976-1980; St. Lucy Church, Middletown, 1980-1981; St. Mary Star of the Sea Church, Narragansett, 1982; Continuing Education & Spirituality, Diocese of Providence, Providence, 1981; SS. Peter & Paul Church, West Warwick, 1982-1983; Cathedral of SS Peter & Paul, Providence, 1983-1986; Office of Ministerial Formation, Providence, 1986-1993; St. Joseph Hospital, Providence, 1991.
Silva was ordered to have no contact with the alleged victim or anyone else under the age of 18, Neronha’s office said.
Silva is the third Rhode Island priest to face charges of sexual abuse in the past year. They are being charged now as Neronha’s office prepares a report on clergy abuse, but the crimes they’re accused of happened in past decades.
For one man, who said Silva molested him when Silva was a priest at St. Francis Xavier in East Providence in the late 1960s, the news of the indictment brought a mix of emotions.
“There was a part of me that was celebrating,” the man said. “And I’ll be really forthright, I fell apart. I just started crying. I’m not even sure why. It just hit me hard. It really hit me hard.”
The Globe does not identify victims of sexual abuse without their permission. The man asked to be quoted anonymously.
The man also recounted his experience when he first came forward to the Diocese of Providence a few years ago, in an effort to tell his story and get some support from the church. He said he was told he’d get a meeting with the bishop and an apology; the terms, though, kept changing, and instead of a meeting with the bishop, he was offered a meeting with a “representative,” he said.
His interview with Kevin O’Brien, the Diocese’s compliance director, also upset him. For years, he’d been under the impression at the time that Silva, who had health issues, was dead. And he said so in no uncertain terms in the interview: He said he knew that Silva was dead, so he wasn’t there for any other reason besides getting some help and telling his story. O’Brien, he said, did not correct him.
About a month or so later, in a phone call with the State Police, the man said pretty much the same thing. The officer set him straight: They noticed he’d said that in his interview with the diocese. But they couldn’t find any record of Silva’s death.
“I was shocked, to be honest with you,” the man said. “I was really, really shocked.”
Conlon, who represents the man, said in an interview that his client’s story is commonplace: Other clients have come back from interviews with the Diocese feeling like they’d just undergone an interrogation, he said.
Meanwhile, the criminal justice system continues to wade through decades of abuse at the hands of clergy.
“It’s gratifying to see the system, albeit slowly, is working to effect justice as to Silva,” Conlon said. “And sadly, there are many who have died that will never be held accountable.”