Bishop Joseph J. Gerry announced Saturday he had removed a priest for alleged sexual abuse of a minor about 25 years ago.
The Rev. Leo James Michaud, 51, was removed from St. Joseph’s parish in Ellsworth on Thursday. In a written statement, Gerry said the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland received a credible report earlier in the week from a man who said he had been abused between the ages of 16 and 19 by Michaud while he was still in the seminary. The man no longer lives in Maine.
Diocesan spokeswoman Sue Bernard said Saturday she did not know whether Michaud denied the allegations. “I know he was approached on Thursday and the allegation was credible enough that he was removed,” she said. She did not know where Michaud was staying, but said he was not staying at the church rectory in Ellsworth.
Until now, only two other priests in Maine — the Revs. John Audibert of Madawaska and Michael Doucette of St. Agatha, both in northern Aroostook County — had been removed since pressure on the Catholic Church began to mount in January, when it was found that a Boston priest with a history of sexual abuse allegations had been moved from church to church. Audibert and Doucette were removed in early March after they admitted sexually abusing minors in the 1970s.
Michaud served at St. Joseph’s for almost six years. He previously served in Old Town, Newcastle, Biddeford, Augusta, Lewiston and Caribou. He was ordained in St. Agatha in 1977.
In his statement, Gerry said the Portland diocese will pay for counseling for Michaud’s victim and asked people to “remember the victim in your prayers.”
Gerry said Michaud will undergo psychological evaluation, will not exercise any public ministry, and will have no unsupervised contact with minors. Gerry also said that the diocese has informed civil authorities.
Auxiliary Bishop Michael R. Cote and Monsignor Marc Caron broke the news to parishioners at St. Joseph’s parish at Saturday’s 4:30 p.m. Mass and will tell others at two Masses this morning. Many parishioners cried.
“When I first heard it, I just felt kind of a shock physically, I kind of went numb,” said Debra Gauvin, a Sunday school teacher at the church.
Gauvin said she is sure the bishop “thought long and hard about it” and feels he has no choice but to remove Michaud. She said Michaud’s mistakes are 25 years old, but she is also sad for the victim.
“The victims of these actions, I’m sure their lives were devastated. It’s sad for everybody, I think,” she said.
Mary Fleming said her fellow parishioners were stunned to learn about Michaud’s removal during the Saturday afternoon Mass.
”Father Michaud is probably the most incredible pastor we’ve ever had,” she said. “He’s a beautiful, beautiful human being, very compassionate, a true leader. He’s just given us so much.”
Parishioners knew few details about the case and wanted to give Michaud a chance to speak to them, she said.
”I’m sure that if he’s made these mistakes, he’s asked for forgiveness,” she said. ”We want to reach out and do whatever we can to help him.” Michaud could not be reached for comment Saturday.
The decision on Michaud came more quickly than the cases of the two priests in Aroostook County. In contrast to that situation, the diocese released much of the pertinent information in its announcement and Gerry’s statement.
Gerry and the Portland diocese, like the Catholic Church elsewhere, had come under criticism for not publicly releasing information about priests who are known to have abused minors and for not moving more quickly to protect children.
Bernard confirmed that Gerry moved more quickly in this case, saying it was the first case to come up since the diocese amended its policy on sexual abuse in February. Under the new policy, when a “credible” allegation of sexual abuse of minors is made, the priest is removed and cannot return to active ministry. “We did exactly what we said we were going to do,” she said.
Cynthia Desrosiers, Maine coordinator of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said she is glad the bishop moved more quickly this time.
“It took a long time to remove the priests up north and those were credible allegations,” she said. “I’m really happy for the parishioners at St. Joseph’s. Whether he’s been doing great ministry or not, children have certainly been in danger.”
This latest case is a surprise to Desrosiers. She has heard from 65 people in the state who say they were abused by priests and has not heard of any allegations against Michaud. She said this confirms for her what she already suspected, that there are many more cases to come.
Michaud’s removal came only days after Pope John Paul II convened cardinals from the United States at the Vatican for a two-day summit on sexual abuse. Gerry quoted the pope, saying that “sexual abuse of a minor is contrary to everything the Church teaches and totally foreign to the very nature of the priesthood itself.”
Gerry said he would “try to be a shepherd” to both Michaud and the victim and asked the faithful to keep Michaud in their prayers, too.
Gerry planned to publish an open letter to the people of the state this weekend in the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Lewiston Sun Journal and the Bangor Daily News, reaffirming the diocese’s commitment to act decisively when credible allegations of sexual abuse are made.
The letter, in the form of a paid advertisement, appears in today’s Maine Sunday Telegram. It does not mention Michaud’s removal.
The open letter starts with an apology to the victims of sexual abuse. Gerry then states that he will:
Permanently remove anyone faced with a credible allegation;
Open the dicocese’s files to the attorney general;
Promptly notify public authorities; and
Implement a program to educate people about how to prevent sexual abuse.