Ex-priest says he's exonerated

The Republican, MA/August 21, 2006
By Bill Zajac

A former Catholic priest from Springfield says he has been exonerated of two accusations of sexual abuse, but an Episcopal Church leader disagrees, saying the priest escaped action by the church on a legal technicality.

The Rev. John R. Russell said he was cleared of two accusations - one by a former Holy Cross of Springfield parishioner and the other by a former parishioner in New Mexico - when the Standing Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande withdrew the accusations against him in June.

"I have been through hell for the past 2½ years," said Russell, adding that he lost his license to work as a priest, his job as a counselor in a public high school and is broke as a result of what he called false accusations.

However, the Rt. Rev. Jeffrey N. Steenson, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande, said the accusations against him were dropped only because of a statute of limitations of about 15 years that exists in legal canons in the Episcopal Church.

"We found the accusations credible and regretted not moving forward. ... In no way should this be taken as an exoneration. I profoundly disagree with that," said Steenson.

The Roman Catholic Church has similar canons, but decided not to invoke them in trying to hold priests accountable for alleged sexual assaults on minors, according to Mark E. Dupont, spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield.

The first accusation against Russell was brought forward to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield in 2004 by Springfield native Janet M. (Bengle) Ruidl. She told the diocesan Review Board that Russell sexually assaulted her while Russell was a priest at Holy Cross Parish in Springfield and she was in her late teens in the late 1960s. Russell supervised the youth group to which Ruidl belonged, according to Ruidl and Russell.

Because Russell had become an Episcopal priest in 1975 and the Catholic Church no longer had any jurisdiction over him when the accusation came forward, the Springfield diocese's Review Board forwarded the accusation - without a finding - to the Episcopal Diocese of Rio Grande. Russell was a retired priest in the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande at the time the accusation was made.

Ruidl, who now lives in Wisconsin, said that she consulted with the Hampden County District Attorney's Office about possible criminal charges against Russell, but she and the district attorney's office jointly decided not to pursue them.

"Once he moved out of state, the statute of limitations' clock stopped ticking. I could have gone forward with charges against him," Ruidl said.

The second accusation was brought forward to the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande by a woman who belonged to a church at which Russell was assigned in the late 1970s. The woman said Russell, upon learning the woman was a single mother in crisis, offered to serve as her mental health counselor. He then initiated sexual contact that led to sexual intercourse, the woman said.

The woman said she came forward after reading an account of Ruidl's alleged abuse by Russell.

Although the Episcopal diocese had no jurisdiction of Russell when he was a Catholic priest, the New Mexico woman planned to call Ruidl as a witness if, and when, the Episcopal diocese held a hearing on the matter.

The offense and hearing could have led to Russell being defrocked.

Russell recently expressed frustration that he has never been able to give his side of the story in any official forum.

"There is another side to this story. She (Ruidl) asked for my hand in marriage many times. She was delusional," said Russell, who admitted working closely with her in many church activities and having contact with her beyond high school.

Russell said he was involved in a multitude of activities with young people throughout his ministry as a priest. He said he had been pursuing a degree in special education when the accusations came forward two years ago. He has since abandoned that, he said.

Steenson said Russell is no longer authorized to conduct services.

"His status is retired. He doesn't have license to function as a priest. And there is no intention of ever giving him the license to function as a priest," said Steenson.

Steenson said the Standing Committee's decision to withdraw the accusations was based upon a recommendation by a canon lawyer.

"I didn't agree with the recommendation," said Steenson, an ex-officio member of the committee.

"I regret it ended the way it did because I felt we should have worked hard to have the complaints heard by the proper board so that the accusers could feel as though some justice had been done," Steenson said.

The New Mexico woman said that she doesn't regret bringing the accusation forward.

"I'm hoping the publicity that he is seeking leads to someone coming forward in what could be criminal charges," she said.

Upon receiving notification that the Standing Committee would be setting aside the accusations, Russell called The Republican seeking a story.

Steenson said that when Russell applied to become a priest in the Episcopal Church, he used a letter of recommendation from former Catholic priest Richard R. Lavigne.

Lavigne, who was accused by dozens of men of sexually abusing them when they were minors, was defrocked by the Catholic Church in 2003.

Lavigne also remains the only publicly identified suspect in the 34-year unsolved murder of 14-year-old Springfield altar boy Daniel Croteau.

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