In May 1972, the Rev. Charles Aubut of Assumption Church in Bellingham told church officials he was concerned about the activities of one of his priests, the Rev. Lionel Ouellette.
Ouellette, who died in 2000, was a Lowell native who would later return to the Mill City to serve in a Highlands parish. But in 1972, Aubut wrote that there were “various complaints” of Ouellette having “improper conduct with young ladies and improper advances made by him.”
Aubut wrote that he had expressed similar concerns the year before and was surprised Ouellette hadn’t already been transferred. The next month, Ouellette was gone, moved to a church in Marlboro.
Aubet’s memo was among 82 pages of materials released from Ouellette’s personnel file last week that detail the church’s decision to move the priest from parish to parish in the wake of claims of sexual harassment, and to reinstate him later in the 1980s after he struggled with depression and a possible drug or alcohol addiction.
Ouellette served as a priest at St. Margaret Parish in the Highlands from 1975 to 1984, and at the tail end of his tenure was evaluated at the Marsalin Clinic, a psychiatric facility in Holliston.
Despite the harassment allegations and potential psychological problems, parishioners at St. Margaret’s remember Ouellette as a friendly priest. Some found him straightforward, others formal.
Mary Neylon, who still lives in the parish, said she thought Ouellette was very nice but very rigid.
“He was a very straight person. Not jovial, almost in the aristocratic, elitist way,” she said. “He’d never be informal with people. He was always very precise.”
Neylon’s view of Ouellette differs from that of City Councilor Richard Howe, a lifelong member of St. Margaret. Howe remembers the priest as “very outward.”
“He always had a smile on his face and would leave you at ease,” Howe said. “There was nothing spectacular about him. He was an ordinary guy.”
While recognizing the severity of the current crisis in the church, Howe said he finds it unfair when priests such as Ouellette have their reputations tarnished by the release of documents decades after the fact.
“To rummage through the church history and to attempt to blemish and destroy reputations is something that ought not to be allowed,” Howe said.
Neylon said she was stunned to hear of the claims against Ouellette.
“I was really shocked,” she said. “I wouldn’t believe anything was wrong.”
In December 1994, when church officials were investigating abuse claims against priests, a review board portrayed Ouellette as a joking guy whose jests were sometimes taken the wrong way, according to files. The board recommended that Ouellette be reassigned, and shortly afterward he was, to St. Mary in Marlboro, a parish he was familiar with and where he stayed until he retired in 1999.
Ouellette, born in 1926, grew up in the Centralville section of Lowell and attended St. Louis de France. His family grew to local prominence, with a number of his siblings working for the city. Two of his brothers, Reginald and Rudolphe, declined to talk about Lionel’s personnel files when contacted last week.
The first claim of sexual misconduct was leveled against Lionel Ouellette in 1962; he was just five years out of the seminary and stationed at St. Jean Baptiste in Lynn. In a hand-written note included in Ouellette’s file, a person wrote to church officials that Ouellette was known to meet a woman in Salem late at night.
In the same period, though it was reported more than 30 years later, another woman claimed that as a junior-high student, she was “fondled and touched” by Ouellette while working at the church. The woman came forward as part of a 1994 church effort to ferret out abuse claims, and sparked the review board’s investigation into Ouellette.
The next claim came in 1972, when Ouellette was at Assumption. In early May, a woman wrote that Ouellette made “improper advances and suggestions to me. He also tried to kiss me, and certainly it was in no fatherly manner.” She said she talked to someone about the incident and was told that Ouellette “has a reputation for seducing young ladies.”
That letter forced Aubut to alert church officials and led to Ouellette’s transfer to St. Matthias in Marlboro. The letter notifying Ouellette of the transfer made no reference to the allegations. In fact, according to later church documents, Ouellette said he did not remember the claims.
“I am confident that you will continue the exemplary priestly service which has characterized your ministry for the past 15 years,” Cardinal Humberto Medeiros wrote when transferring Ouellette.
Ouellette’s file does not include harassment allegations while he was at St. Margaret, but it does include questions about possible addiction or depression.
In January 1983, church officials wrote of Ouellette having “some type of addiction. He is not able to perform his priestly ministry except in a very limited way and would appear to be in a deteriorating condition.”
The next month, the Rev. John D’Arcy wrote that “there appears to be some depression as you know. There may be a drug dependency, but this is not certain.”
By September, Ouellette had received outpatient care at the Marsalin Clinic, and church officials were confident he was ready to return to work. In March 1984, he was transferred to St. Mary’s.
A decade later, the possibility of abuse was brought up again. This time, Ouellette was assessed by doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital, according to church records.
Ouellette denied the allegations against him during the review board’s proceedings.
In a letter to Ouellette early in 1995, Cardinal Bernard Law acknowledged “these have been difficult days for you, Lionel.” He thanked him for his cooperation. In February 1996, the review board closed the case.