Springfield - Questions remain about how a former priest who settled a suit claiming he had sex with a 15-year-old in the 1970s became a volunteer in the local Catholic diocese, despite policies to the contrary.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield is still probing how Albert J. Blanchard, who left the priesthood decades ago to marry and have children, turned up as a youth religion teacher and co-facilitator of a parish-based support group for parents of gay children.
Blanchard, of Chicopee, reached an out-of-court settlement during the 1990s with a woman who said she had a four-year sexual relationship with the then-priest that lasted until she was 19. He was in his 30s.
Blanchard was never charged criminally, but the diocese has a "zero tolerance" policy prohibiting its clergy, staff or volunteers from working with children if they have any credible allegation of sexual misbehavior or abuse in their pasts. The policy is part of the so-called "Dallas norms" that followed a 2003 meeting of U.S. bishops who convened to try to repair the damage to the church at the height of the clergy abuse scandal.
Blanchard did not return calls for comment. However, the founders of the support group, "Always Our Children," said they did not know about Blanchard's past until very recently, when the woman went public.
"I knew he had an issue with a woman years ago, and that she was young," said Chester F. Franczyk, who founded the group along with his wife, Ann H. Franczyk, at Sacred Heart Church.
The Franczyks disputed media reports that Blanchard co-founded the group and believe his role has been overstated.
"He may lead a weekly meeting or say a prayer to start out, but I never perceived him as being a facilitator," Ann Franczyk said.
The couple worries that the attention being paid to Blanchard will jeopardize the success of the support group, which meets weekly and targets adults, not children.
"My chief concern is Always Our Children," she said. "All I think of is the hundreds of families we've kept together and the hearts we've softened and the minds we've turned ... We reach out to Catholic and other parents, families and friends of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons."
A spokesman for the diocese said Blanchard's troubles will not imperil the future of the group.
Ann Franczyk added that she and her husband were "blind-sided" by the controversy. They celebrated the group's fourth anniversary on Tuesday without him.
Msgr. George A. Farland, pastor of the church, said he was instructed by Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell to call Blanchard and tell him that he could no longer play any leadership role in the support group. In addition, Blanchard was stripped of his role as "extraordinary minister," which allows him to offer Communion during Masses and perform other duties.
Farland also said Blanchard used to teach CCD classes but stopped in 2006. He said Blanchard underwent a standard criminal history check and signed off on a diocesan code of conduct.
The code sets out strict standards around interacting with children. For example, it encourages verbal praise, "side hugs," high-fives and fist bumps, but prohibits kissing, inappropriately lengthy hugs, tickling, piggyback rides, and sexually aggressive behavior. It also bars physical punishment, profanity and possession of firearms around children.
Farland said there were never any complaints about Blanchard at the parish, and that the former priest was understanding when he was told he could no longer perform duties for the diocese.
"I'm kind of embarrassed I didn't know more about him. There were rumors among the clergy that there was a woman involved when he left the priesthood, but I always assumed it was an adult woman," Farland said.
A victim advocate for the diocese said the woman who complained about Blanchard came to her about a year ago, protesting the fact that he was a licensed social worker, but did not seem angered over his role within the support group.
"I followed up with the licensing board. I discovered I could not seek to get his license revoked on her behalf and I gave her some suggestions," Patricia Finn McManamy said. "I have to say I completely missed the part about him being prevented through our policies from working with any church group."
McManamy keeps a room full of files on abusive clergy and staff and files on all known victims. She said neither Blanchard nor the woman, whose name is not public, turned up in her records.