PROVIDENCE — Margaret A. McKenna says she was around 12 or 13 when a young priest in the rectory across from her home in Central Falls, R.I., took her for a drive to Lincoln Woods State Park and fondled her in the car.
She remembers him saying that no one would believe her if she told, but she could confess her sins to him. He sought her out for months, touching her in the school, in his car, at the rectory.
McKenna, who would go on to become the president of two Boston universities, has shared her story many times — with a priest when she was young, with the Rhode Island State Police, with Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence, with Rhode Island legislators in March — and yet she said she felt invisible when the Providence diocese released a list Monday of nearly 50 clergy accused of child molestation.
The late Rev. Peter Tedeschi — the priest she’d accused of molesting her in the 1960s — was listed as “publicly accused.” He and the late Monsignor Anthony Deangelis were separated from those the diocese deemed “credibly accused.”
Quite simply, according to the diocese, it was McKenna’s word against the dead priest.
“Are you kidding me? I’m not a credible witness? Why would I do this?” McKenna said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “I tried to bring them forward while he was still alive. I don’t know why [else] I would say that. What do I have to gain?”
The diocese made the distinction because Tedeschi and Deangelis were accused after they died, and the allegations were not verified by an investigation or corroborated by other witnesses or evidence.
Their names had been raised in testimony at the State House. McKenna had spoken about Tedeschi, testifying that he’d molested her while at Holy Trinity Church in Central Falls and Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Providence.
About 60 years later, and McKenna was back where she started — being told that no one would believe her. She wondered who else was feeling the same way.
“I’m 74. How many other people are there who haven’t reported these things? How many other priests should be on that list and [people] attempted to report, but had the same response I had?” McKenna said. “I think it’s the tip of the iceberg. I think there’s many more victims and I think there’s many more priests. Because you have to be pretty sturdy to do enough to get somebody on that list.”
For all of her accomplishments — president of Suffolk University for several months in 2015, longtime president of Lesley University, deputy counsel in the White House during the Carter administration, leader of transition teams for President Bill Clinton, Governor Deval Patrick, and Mayor Thomas Menino — McKenna said she felt dismissed and ignored when the Providence diocese released the list.
Providence lawyer Timothy J. Conlon, who has sued the diocese on behalf of victims of clergy abuse, said Tuesday that the diocese “has a history of denying there are allegations of abuse, or that such allegations are credible, when it suits them.”
Conlon said his firm was compiling a list of accused priests. “We suggest that the judgment as to who is credibly accused is best left to independent authorities,” he added.
McKenna was a 22-year-old law student when she confronted the priest at his new rectory. She said he admitted “having a problem” with young girls, but “couldn’t help himself.”
She reported him to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence several times, starting with a call in 2002 while she was president of Lesley University.
McKenna insisted on a meeting with Bishop Tobin in 2013 and, unsatisfied with the way she was treated by him and the diocese’s investigator, she contacted the State Police in 2014 and told them that the diocese needed to improve the way it dealt with victims.
Tedeschi died in 1986, two decades after McKenna first reported him to another priest. She never knew what happened with her first complaint or any of the others.
She knows the effect the abuse and its aftermath had on her life.
McKenna graduated from Emmanuel College in Boston. She earned a law degree from Southern Methodist University and began her career as a civil rights attorney before joining the White House. She served 22 years as president of Lesley University, four years as president of the Walmart Foundation, and seven months as president of Suffolk University, but left after public battles with the board of the private liberal arts college.
McKenna went public for the first time, in March, about being molested, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of legislation to extend the statute of limitations for victims of childhood sexual abuse to bring lawsuits.
“I have been committed to social justice and fairness . . . seeking to even the playing field against those more powerful,” McKenna said. “Folks have often asked why I have such a strong visceral reaction to unfairness. That is why I became a civil rights lawyer and [led] a college to create an environment, hoping others would do the same.”
Now, she said, she wants to see changes at the Providence diocese with how it handles complaints from victims.
Starting with, she said, getting rid of the man at the top: Tobin.