A Rutland priest charged with child sexual abuse is stepping down as pastor of a city Catholic church.
The Rev. James McShane announced his departure as leader of Immaculate Heart of Mary in a letter read to 1,000 member families at Masses Saturday and Sunday.
McShane’s exit comes as the priest faces a lawsuit that is requiring the state’s Catholic diocese to divulge more than 50 years of files on all clergy misconduct.
It also follows a meeting Jan. 11 between Vermont Catholic Bishop Kenneth Angell and 200 Rutland parishioners who lamented the lack of stability since McShane took a leave of absence last spring, all the while keeping his post.
The Rev. Francis PrivÃ©, now serving in Underhill, was to be the latest in a string of fill-in priests starting Feb. 1. Instead, he’ll become Immaculate Heart’s new pastor that day.
“It’s been long overdue,” said John Cassarino, Rutland mayor and church member since his baptism there as a baby. “You can tell people are pleased. The parish has hung tight.”
McShane didn’t say much in his letter, noting his lawyer advised him not to speak about his case.
The priest faces a civil lawsuit by Michael Bernier, a 45-year-old investment firm vice president who charges he was sexually abused as an altar boy in St. Albans.
The case is the first to be publicized in Vermont since state Attorney General William Sorrell began his office’s current investigation of about 40 past or present priests charged with sexual misconduct.
“I’m breathing a sigh of relief,” Bernier said Sunday from his home in California. “Maybe the healing can begin for some people.”
Bernier and his lawyer, however, still are waiting for the diocese to hand over clergy misconduct files as ordered by a Chittenden Superior Court judge Dec. 16.
“I’m perplexed by the delay,” Bernier said.
In response, the diocese’s two lawyers said they needed several more weeks to comb through church records.
“We’re still in the process of reviewing,” said Rutland lawyer David Cleary, who is working with Winooski colleague William M. O’Brien. “I think we’re probably going to be done by the middle of February.”
McShane, pastor in Rutland since 1998, served in the past as director of the diocese’s Office of Youth Ministry and chaplain for the state Boy Scouts and Catholic Camp Holy Cross in Colchester.
Bernier’s lawyer, Jerome O’Neill of Burlington, says former camp counselors told him McShane had a slide tray of photos of naked boys in his cabin in the mid-1970s, but the bishop at the time, the now-deceased John Marshall, did nothing about it.
Bernier is suing not only McShane but also the diocese. He wants a jury to calculate financial damages, saying the church is liable because it ordained the priest and placed him “in a situation where he had the opportunity to and did molest and otherwise sexually abuse a number of pre-teen and teenage boys.”
McShane could not be reached for comment Sunday.
The bishop ordered McShane and all other priests facing charges to take leaves until the state finished its investigation. But with the review in its ninth month, Rutland parishioners have grown anxious without a permanent, fulltime priest for baptisms, weddings and funerals.
“In hindsight, we should have done things differently,” Angell told churchgoers, as quoted in the current issue of the Vermont Catholic Tribune. “We should have reached out earlier. When I first put priests on administrative leave, I never, never imagined it would take this long.”
The uncertainty has taken a toll. When the diocese sought money for its annual Bishop’s Fund, Immaculate Heart gave about $19,000 to meet 77 percent of its goal. In comparison, Rutland’s other Catholic parishes, Christ the King and St. Peter’s, each collected 116 percent of their targets.
Churchgoers welcomed the weekend’s latest news.
“People just feel it’s a fresh start,” one said Sunday.