The sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church has been exposed in large and loud ways over the years – on the front pages of newspapers across the country detailing massive financial payouts to thousands of abuse survivors and the removal or criminal prosecution of hundreds of priests.

Just this year it was reported that more survivors than ever are coming forward, leading to a dramatic increase in financial settlements and a renewed crisis for the church.

But for one abuse survivor,  it played out in a much quieter way – in small claims court in Portland, where the local Catholic diocese successfully avoided paying his psychological counseling bill totaling $875.

David Gagnon, formerly of Biddeford, was abused over a five-year period by a priest when he was a teenager in the 1980s. After he came forward in 1991, the church offered him a financial settlement. Then, in 2002, Bishop Joseph Gerry of the Roman Catholic of Diocese of Portland issued a widely publicized letter declaring that survivors of clergy sexual abuse would be reimbursed for counseling. The letter was both an acknowledgement that the church had failed to protect children and a promise to do right by them as adults.

So Gagnon took him up on that offer. He’s one of 126 individuals who have had counseling paid for through the diocese to date.

But, as he learned last week, the church’s promise was not limitless.

During a hearing Thursday that lasted about a half hour, District Court Judge Peter Darvin told Gagnon that Gerry’s letter does not constitute a legally binding agreement and thus he saw no legal argument to compel the diocese to pay.

Gagnon, 54, who now lives in Montreal, called the decision heartbreaking, not just for him but potentially for other victims to whom the diocese might seek to end reimbursements. Gagnon said the fact that the church was willing to force him to go to court over such a small amount of money was “morally repugnant,” even though it’s not the first time.

David Gagnon poses for a photo at the Cumberland County Courthouse in Portland after a small-claims hearing on Thursday. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

His case is another reminder why the scandal continues to pose challenges for the church nearly two decades later. It also speaks to broader questions about legal and moral obligations owed to survivors and about how those don’t always line up evenly.

“This feels like a continuation of a pattern among church officials to talk publicly about the need to heal but then, behind closed doors, financial considerations trump their moral obligation,” said Zach Hiner, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, based in St. Louis.

Gerald Petruccelli, the Portland attorney who represented the diocese against Gagnon, said even though the judge ruled in his favor, he was disappointed it went that far.

“The church has a system in place (for reimbursing) and he didn’t want to oblige. That was unfortunate,” Petruccelli said, adding that Gagnon has been paid for 170 counseling sessions over nearly 30 years, on top of a six-figure financial settlement in the early 1990s when he first came forward with abuse claims.

The current fight between Gagnon and the diocese ultimately came down to whether Gagnon followed the process spelled out by the church – essentially that any follow-up counseling sessions be reviewed by the church’s independent clinician to ensure that they are related to abuse.

But Gagnon, whose trust in the diocese and in the entire Catholic Church has been irrevocably broken, challenged why the church should have that much control over him.

“They want to impose a specific healing process on an abuse survivor and that’s not how it works,” said Gagnon, who represented himself in court.

David Gagnon, right, and Gerald Petruccelli, attorney for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, listen on Thursday at Cumberland County Courthouse in Portland as District Court Judge Peter Darvin delivers a decision in a small-claims case that Gagnon brought against the diocese for costs of therapy he undergoes. Gagnon was sexually abused by the Rev. Michael Doucette, who was a parish priest in Biddeford, in the early 1980s. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

Judge Darvin ruled that he couldn’t force the diocese to alter its processes and said if the diocese found Gagnon did not follow its guidelines, it was within its authority to deny. But the judge issued his ruling almost apologetically, acknowledging that while the diocese might not be legally bound, there are moral or spiritual obligations to consider.

“One thing that’s clear,” Darvin told Gagnon, “there is nothing the court system can do to properly redress the harm you’ve experienced.”

GROOMED FOR YEARS

Gagnon grew up in a French-Canadian family in the predominantly Franco-American city of Biddeford. The family was active in the Catholic Church. Gagnon was an altar boy and sang in the church choir.

That’s how he met the Rev. Michael Doucette, who was a priest at St. Andre’s parish.

Looking back, Gagnon now sees clearly that he was groomed for years by Doucette. When he was 15, Doucette began to sexually abuse him. It lasted more than five years and Gagnon said the impact of that abuse has stayed with him his entire life.

He reported the abuse to church officials in 1991 but didn’t tell his family at the time.

Gagnon’s claims came long before the public learned of widespread abuse within the Catholic Church, and the Portland diocese wanted to keep it quiet. It offered Gagnon a financial settlement in 1993 as long as he signed a nondisclosure agreement indicating he wouldn’t talk about it and as long as it included language that the diocese did not accept liability.

Gagnon has since violated that agreement. He said he was young at the time and didn’t realize how much the abuse had affected his life. Now he tries to be a voice for other survivors who might not be comfortable sharing their own story.

“I am doing my best to be as strong a survivor as I can be – there isn’t a day that goes by without me thinking about the abuse, honestly, but how much it controls my life varies over the years,” he said.

After Gagnon outed Doucette as an abuser, the priest was transferred to a parish in Aroostook County, whose parishioners were not made aware of those allegations. It was later learned that these types of reassignments were common practice for priests accused of abuse.

Doucette wasn’t removed from the ministry until 2002, more than a decade after Gagnon came forward.

That was the same year Bishop Gerry authored a letter outlining the steps the Portland diocese was taking to remove credibly accused priests and to offer support to victims. He even stressed that the diocese would pay for counseling for individuals who had active lawsuits.

Gagnon, who says counseling has been invaluable, took the offer to heart, but he quickly found that the process was far more cumbersome and traumatizing than he expected – mainly, that he had to keep dealing with church officials.

Hiner, director of the survivors’ network, said he’s seen cases in dioceses throughout the country where victims stopped trying to get counseling paid for because it was too hard.

But Gagnon said he’s always been a fighter.

David Gagnon poses for a photo in downtown Biddeford on Friday with St. Joseph’s Church, the last Roman Catholic church still open in Biddeford, in the background. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

In 2004 and again in 2007, under Bishop Richard Malone, he sued the diocese in small claims court over counseling bills that diocesan staff questioned. Both times, the diocese relented and agreed to reimburse.

This time, it did not.

Petruccelli said initial requests for counseling are accepted no questions asked. It’s only when victims seek longer-term counseling that the diocese requires a review.

Gagnon said he believes the diocese is simply tired of dealing with him.

“I’ve been treated terribly by the diocese since I came forward,” he told the judge. “They are asking me to trust an institution that has failed me for years.”

Hiner, with SNAP, said no diocese should fault a survivor for being angry or persistent.

“Whether he’s a pain in the butt for them is not germane,” he said. “He was wronged.”

THE STICKING POINT: DIOCESAN OVERSIGHT

Over the course of almost 30 years, Gagnon said he’s been reimbursed about $11,000 by the diocese for counseling. There were some years when he attended weekly sessions for an extended period and others when he didn’t go at all.

According to Dave Guthro, a spokesman for the Portland diocese, 126 individuals have been paid for counseling dating back to 1991. The amount spent on counseling is about $917,700, and other related payments for transportation, support workshops, retreats and other resources total over $560,000. Guthro said those payments come from diocesan reserves and investment income, not from parishioner donations or other fundraising.

Petruccelli had argued that Gagnon has received significant compensation over the years but, according to the diocese’s own numbers, Gagnon’s reimbursements are slightly below the average of $11,700.

The current issue, according to Gagnon, was that he did not allow the diocese’s clinician to sign off on the counseling sessions.

This was the sticking point for both Gagnon and the diocese. The diocese’s position was: If we’re paying for counseling, we should have some oversight. Gagnon, however, said the diocese has continually failed to recognize the impact of forcing him to coordinate his care through church officials – the very same people who failed to protect him.

Instead, Gagnon found his own independent clinician, one not employed by the diocese, who agreed with his therapist that his recent struggles were indeed related to his past abuse because everything in his adult life is tied to that.

“My first experience with intimacy was rape,” he said. It has affected all his intimate relationships, to some degree, as well as his relationships with men in authority positions, including work supervisors.

The diocese balked at that and suggested Gagnon get another assessment from a diocese-approved clinician.

“These are grueling psychological assessments and they wanted me to do it all over again,” he said.

So Gagnon said no, the diocese refused to pay and that’s how it ended up before a judge.

Petruccelli, who has represented the diocese of Portland for the last 15 years, including during those prior suits brought by Gagnon, declined to discuss in detail the particulars of this case.

In court documents, though, he argued that Gagnon was trying to change the rules.

“Mr. Gagnon is essentially claiming some vested right to set the terms of his own eligibility for continued participation in the program,” the attorney wrote.

Hiner, at SNAP, said one of the things dioceses can do to improve the process is to have entirely external reviews.

“Abuse is such a personal crime. The way people recover is dependent on so many factors,” he said. “To say 20 sessions is enough, or whatever arbitrary number they decide, I don’t know how a diocese can say that.”

Gagnon said he can’t help but think that the diocese paid Petruccelli far more than $875 to ensure victory in the case.

They can afford it, he said of the church. But $875 is a hardship for Gagnon, who just started a new job. He’s not sure how he’ll pay the bill and has started an online fundraiser.

As he left the court hearing Thursday, he walked past Rita-Mae Bissonnette, the diocesan chancellor who has long been a point of contact for abuse victims. She turned to him and said, “God bless you.”

Gagnon was ready.

“You often say you’re praying for me, but I think you should be praying for yourself,” he replied. “You’re going to need it.”

Staff Writer Megan Gray contributed to this report.


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