Priest denies sex assaults in two cases

The Berkshire Eagle/November 19, 2008

Pittsfield - A Roman Catholic clergyman accused of sexually assaulting two boys in the Berkshires was spared the titular honor of his vocation when he was arraigned in Berkshire Superior Court on Tuesday.

It was "Mr. Mercure," accused child rapist, not "the Rev. Gary Mercure," Catholic priest, when the Glens Falls, N.Y., man was formally charged with three counts of forcible child rape and one count of indecent assault and battery on a child under 14.

Mercure avoided prosecution in New York after coming under fire as a priest in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, which spans 14 upstate counties. He now faces sexual abuse charges in the Berkshires, where two men in their early 30s claim Mercure forcibly raped them in 1986 and 1989. The circumstances surrounding the alleged incidents were not made clear in court.

Mercure, 60, who was indicted last month by a Berkshire grand jury, faces possible life imprisonment if convicted of the felony counts.

The Albany diocese placed the priest on "administrative leave" earlier this year, when "specific allegations of sexual misconduct with a minor first surfaced," according to Ken Goldfarb, a spokesman for the diocese.

In August, after further investigation, Mercure was suspended "from all ministry," Goldfarb said in an e-mail message. That means he can no longer celebrate Mass, appear publicly as a priest, or perform other church sacraments, Goldfarb said.

The statute of limitations to bring criminal charges against Mercure in New York had expired by the time the abuse allegations came to light there, according to law enforcement officials in that state.

But New York authorities helped Massachusetts officials with their investigation, culminating in last month's direct indictment by a Berkshire grand jury. The statute of limitations in sexual assault cases is longer in Massachusetts.

That means that sufficient evidence was presented to the grand jury to make allegations against Mercure, who was never actually arrested but rather summonsed to Berkshire Superior Court on Tuesday to be formally arraigned on the charges.

Mercure spoke briefly during his appearance before Judge Peter A. Velis, who ordered the priest to have no contact with either of his alleged victims. Mercure's attorney, Michael O. Jennings, of Springfield, asked Velis to enter not-guilty pleas on behalf of his client. Berkshire Second Assistant District Attorney Paul J. Caccaviello did not request the judge to set bail for Mercure, who was released on personal recognizance.

Mercure is charged with raping or sexually assaulting two males in the Berkshires roughly 20 years ago. The victims, both from the Albany area, are now 33 and 32, according to prosecutors. The incident involving the 33-year-old reportedly occurred in Great Barrington or Monterey between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31, 1986, while the incident involving the 32-year-old reportedly occurred in New Ashford between Feb. 1 and Feb. 28, 1989.

The investigations were conducted by Massachusetts State Police detectives assigned to the office of Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless.

Mark Lyman, director of the Capital Region Chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, a national support group for clergy abuse victims, said Tuesday's arraignment was the first step toward justice for Mercure's alleged victims.

Lyman claims that at least a dozen Albany-area men were abused by the priest as minors, though Mercure was never charged with any crimes.

"In the coming months, the truth will be exposed," said Lyman, referring to Mercure's upcoming trial, which likely take place some time next year.

"Today (Tuesday) is a very significant day for victims of clergy sexual abuse," Lyman said.

Velis scheduled a pretrial hearing for May 12, 2009.

Goldfarb, in his e-mail message, emphasized that the "oft repeated claim" that Mercure victimized a dozen men when they were minors "is just that - a claim."

Meanwhile, the Albany Diocese "has not received that many complaints concerning this priest," said Goldfarb. "That figure, perhaps while widely reported, has come solely from Mr. Lyman and his associates."

Though Lyman concedes that he has been "a thorn" in the side of the diocese for some time, he has no plans of letting up, he said.

"These are crimes," Lyman said during an impromptu press conference held outside the Berkshire County Courthouse on Tuesday.

"These are felonies. These are not canonical issues to be handled by church leaders," he said.

Jennings said his client has worked with Massachusetts authorities since they approached him a few months ago. Mercure even gave a DNA sample to Massachusetts State Police, according to Jennings. "We were very hopeful this would not happen," said Jennings. "We were disappointed that he was charged."

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