PROVIDENCE — Advocates for victims of abuse by priests are accusing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence and Bishop Thomas Tobin of a “cover-up” after a Smithfield priest was placed on administrative leave this week over a child sex abuse allegation dating to 40 years ago.
The Rev. Francis Santilli, pastor of St. Philip Parish in Greenville, won’t exercise public ministry or live on church property pending the outcome of an investigation, the diocese said Thursday. He also resigned as pastor of St. Philip Parish.
But it wasn’t the first time Santilli had been accused of child sexual abuse, according to the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests and BishopAccountability.org. In fact, according to those organizations, it was at least the third.
In 2014, SNAP held a news conference to bring attention to a diocesan document published by Channel 10 that linked Santilli to an investigation of child sexual abuse. The document was a 2012 letter from the diocese’s then-compliance director to the state police outlining allegations that a priest had abused a boy and his brother in the early 1980s. It redacted the priest’s name, but it identified him as the current pastor at St. Philip Parish in Greenville. At the time that was Santilli.
In response to the March 2014 SNAP news conference, the diocese said that its Diocesan Review Board had looked into the allegation against Santilli.
“As a result of this thorough review, the allegation was deemed to lack any credibility,” the diocese said at the time, according to a copy of the diocese’s website kept by BishopAccountability.org and The Providence Journal’s archives. “Father Santilli is an exemplary pastor and continues to enjoy the total confidence and support of the Diocese of Providence.”
Michael Kieloch, a spokesman for the diocese whose tenure started several years after the 2014 episode, said in an email Thursday: “I would refer back to what the diocese put out at the time which was that particular allegation was deemed to not be credible based on the investigation at that time.”
Shortly after that March 2014 news conference, though, another person came forward to accuse Santilli of abuse. Santilli remained in ministry and was not included in the diocese’s 2019 list of credibly accused clergy.
“We at BishopAccountability.org and SNAP are outraged that Bishop Tobin left Santilli in ministry,” people involved in those two organizations, Anne Barrett Doyle and Ann Hagan Webb, said in an emailed statement. “He decided to put children at risk, even while he allowed brave victims to be discredited and demeaned.”
The man who came forward after the 2014 news conference is named Dennis Laprade.
Now living in North Providence, Laprade is 52. He said when he was about 10 years old, he served as an altar boy at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, where diocesan records show Santilli had his first assignment as a deacon. Laprade said he remembers Santilli being a deacon, and his ordination as a priest. He recalls that the abuse occurred after the ordination. He needed help from Santilli to get a badge from the Cub Scouts, he said. They worked together to get that particular badge at the rectory, Laprade recalls. After they were done with their work, Santilli asked him to sit on his lap, Laprade said.
Santilli then tickled him, grabbed his groin so hard it hurt and pushed up against him while he sat, Laprade said.
“I kind of jumped up, said I gotta go,” Laprade said in an interview. “That was the only time I allowed that to happen. I did go back later on, but I wouldn’t sit on his lap.”
Laprade did not tell anyone for a long time. He was embarrassed. He did tell his mom he didn’t want to go back there. But for a long time, only his wife knew.
After the 2014 news conference, though, he decided to come forward. He went to the Diocese of Providence and the state police.
The diocese, Laprade said, told him his allegation was strikingly similar to a previous allegation against Santilli – the same one at issue in the news conference. The diocese also asked him to take a lie detector test, he said. Webb, who is an advocate for fellow victims of clergy abuse, and a state police official advised him not to take the lie detector test, because it was the diocese, not the authorities, asking for it, Laprade said.
Laprade is relieved now that Santilli is under scrutiny again, but believes that scrutiny should have come long ago.
“I think they swept me under the rug, that’s all they did,” Laprade said. “I think the church covered it all up.”
Major Robert Creamer, the detective commander of the Rhode Island State Police, said the 2012 allegations and the 2014 allegation were both outside of the statute of limitations at the time.
In the 2012 case, the alleged victim never followed up with attempts by the state police to contact him, Creamer said. In the 2014 case – which matches Laprade’s account – the alleged victim did follow up, but because it was outside the statute of limitations, the state police could take it no further, Creamer said. In those cases they do not make determinations about credibility.
“In a situation like that, we would refer it back to the diocese,” Creamer said.
In a follow-up email, Kieloch, the diocesan spokesman, said: “The Diocese of Providence fully and promptly reports every allegation to law enforcement, which includes all of the previous allegations involving Fr. Santilli. These allegations were also reported in local media at the time. The Diocesan Review Board, comprised of independent legal, judicial, and child protection experts, agreed that none of the previous complaints had been substantiated at that time.”
The allegation that led to Santilli’s being placed on administrative leave this week is different from the ones in 2012 and 2014, according to the diocese. According to Kieloch, on Dec. 29, 2021, the diocese received an email from the relative of someone who alleged they’d been abused by a priest in active ministry. The email didn’t identify the victim or perpetrator, Kieloch said.
Kieloch said the diocese opened an investigation and communicated with the state police. The state police interviewed the victim this week, Kieloch said. (This also was not Laprade.) The diocese learned more about the allegations on Wednesday, and removed Santilli from ministry on Thursday morning.
“Allegations of sexual abuse by clergy, even if they occurred decades ago, always must be taken seriously. I will be praying for all who are involved and affected by this difficult news,” Tobin said in an emailed statement.
The office of Attorney General Peter Neronha, which is currently reviewing decades’ worth of diocesan records in an investigation of clergy child sex abuse, said the statute of limitations had run out on criminal charges in this latest case, too.
But given the seriousness of the allegations and the accused priest’s active assignment, it forwarded the information it had gathered to the diocese and asked the diocese to let them know what actions it was taking, spokeswoman Kristy dosReis said. The diocese then announced publicly it was placing Santilli on leave.
Neronha’s office is preparing a report looking into clergy abuse and the diocese’s response to it, in addition to bringing criminal charges where they’re possible.
“Our investigation remains active and ongoing,” dosReis said.