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Ray Duckler: In God we trust? Priests in New Hampshire made that hard to do

Last modified: 12/30/2015 12:44:29 AM
David Ouellette, 53, had one correction to make.

Yes, Catholic priests were more than merely respected figures in his community when he was growing up in Rochester. They were placed on a pedestal, revered, almost God-like, right?

“You got most of that right,” Ouellette told me. “The only thing you have wrong is that they weren’t looked at as God-like. In my family, they were God.”

That’s why Ouellette’s parents believed their son was safe during those overnights at the church rectory, alone with a priest named Father Joseph Maguire.

Maguire died in prison 10 years ago, convicted of raping three altar boys in Dover through the 1970s. A few years later, he began molesting Ouellette, 15 at the time.

“I’m not going to tell you exactly what happened,” Ouellette said. “I can’t; it’s really hard for me.”

We know enough. Ouellette married and had two kids, but he was always alone, fighting the memory, wondering what he’d done to deserve such a fate, ashamed to reveal the details to those closest to him.

He says he’s coping better now. I reached him by phone, as he drove to his therapist’s office in Concord. He began seeing her three years ago and says, in a sense, she saved his life.

“I’m not a victim; I’m working on being a survivor,” Ouellette told me. “Without her help, I couldn’t be where I am today.”

He’s the state director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, a nationwide program formed in 1989 that grew once the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team reported on sex crimes and cover-up by the Boston Archdiocese in 2002.

Shortly after, New Hampshire Attorney General Phil McLaughlin opened his own investigation, and he found the same thing here.

He found out there were boys like Ouellette, vulnerable, trusting and, eventually, emotionally traumatized.

It didn’t matter that he had a family of love and support, or that he let the truth finally spill out after years of secrecy, or that he became an accomplished employee of the New Hampshire Council on Developmental Disabilities, based in Concord. The emotional scars remained.

It’s one of the local connections Ouellette, who still lives in Rochester, has to this city, along with a wife, Robin Carlson, who teaches at NHTI.

She, like Ouellette, agreed to speak with me, despite the delicate nature of the topic. She always wondered, through the first half of their now-25-year marriage, what troubled her husband at certain times.

“It was all bubbling to the surface, the overreaction to what we thought were minor issues,” said Carlson, who works for the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals, helping people with disabilities. “His reaction would be way out of the box, super angry, where is that coming from, or super depressed or super quiet. He didn’t seem like a stable, healthy person.”

He wasn’t.

Ouellette said he was molested by Maguire for months in the Rochester area. He said nothing about it in later years and blamed himself for what had happened.

“I didn’t know what I had done to cause this man to fall from grace,” Ouellette said. “I blamed myself, and the sad thing is the guilt stays with you.”

Then in early 2002, the Globe stories began spilling out. Like reaction to the Kennedy assassination and the Challenger tragedy, Ouellette, 40 at the time, remembered exactly where he was when the news broke.

“I was driving down 93 and listening to NPR and they were talking about it and I had to pull off to the side of road,” Ouellette said. “The first thing that came to my mind was I have two kids and the person was saying we need to hear from victims because that was the only way we were going to keep kids safe. I panicked and had a major anxiety attack.”

He told his wife, moving into it slowly by first saying he’d gotten a lawyer. “Was he divorcing me?” Carlson said she thought.

He got to the point and things made sense. That’s why her husband had those mood swings. That’s why he got angry when she spoke about her faith.

“I thought he showed misplaced anger,” Carlson said. “I felt not trusted, like, ‘How come I’m not your best friend?’ ”

He told his son, now 20, two years ago, his daughter, 17, five months ago. “Both of my kids said, ‘Dad, now we understand your behavior,’ ” Ouellette said, adding his children’s support has helped him through.

He never told his parents, both of whom have died. “They admired this priest so much that I knew it would have destroyed them,” Ouellette said.

Trust and blind faith surfaced again and again as I reported for this series, from those who were abused and those who investigated.

McLaughlin, the attorney general in 2002, grew up in an Irish neighborhood in Nashua with a strong Catholic faith. He attended Sacred Heart School, Bishop Bradley High School in Manchester and the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.

I asked him to put his findings of abuse by priests and the ensuing cover-up into context.

“The church was a sanctuary for these young altar boys, and I think what each of them experienced in their own turn was betrayal,” McLaughlin said. “The fact that it should be done by people who profess to be holy, it was so deeply wrong and it hurt so many people that it seemed to me that the very best way to deal with it was disclosure.”

Then I asked about McLaughlin’s faith, where it stood today. “That’s a question I do not discuss,” he said. “That’s a private matter. I never speak about that.”

Back in 2002, McLaughlin said his professional side nudged his personal feelings into the background as he coordinated the effort to find the truth.

His report was issued at a press conference in March of 2003. Lawyers and victims huddled in offices to plan strategy, separate from the state’s.

Manchester attorney Peter Hutchins represented nearly 200 victims, including Ouellette. He had already settled 55 cases before McLaughlin released his findings.

His oldest client was 83; most were in their 40s and 50s. Hutchins heard their stories, saw their tears, felt their pain.

“Some of them were so badly damaged, they could hardly tell their story,” Hutchins said by phone. “I had one client who was lying in the fetal position during the whole interview.”

Realizing offending priests had little money, Hutchins, like the attorney general’s office, went after the church as an institution, filing civil suits, and, like the church, had to buy time because of the expired statute of limitations.

Hutchins noted that many clients never realized the diocese had exhibited enabling behavior until the scandal broke, moving the start of the six-year time table for the statute of limitations from the time of the abuse, decades earlier in most cases, to 2002.

A judge in Nashua agreed with Hutchins, and he has since won 250 out-of-court settlements, including some involving abuse outside the diocese, at Catholic high schools in Manchester, Nashua and Dover.

Most priests avoided prison or jail time because the expired statute of limitations protected them. “So much time had passed from the alleged sexual incidents that the law prohibited individual prosecution of a particular priest for this wrongdoing,” Jim Rosenberg, one of the lead investigators from the attorney general’s office during the scandal, wrote in an email.

There were exceptions, though, such as Maguire, who had moved out of state for a while, stopping the clock on the statute of limitations, and then returned.

But for Ouellette, the unseen fight goes on, despite Maguire’s conviction and death in prison from natural causes.

For years, therapy did little if anything to help him. Only recently has he found a professional who’s turned his life around.

“I’m doing okay,” Ouellette said. “I have up days and down days, and that’s why I’m in therapy, looking for happiness and not falling into deep depression.”

And your faith?

“It’s gone,” he said.

Coming Sunday: As Ouellette looks to establish a facility for victims to meet in Concord or Manchester, safeguards that were put in place in 2003 seem to be working.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)


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