Parishioners’ shock at accused priest’s removal is understandable, experts say
The Rev. Larry Jensen was removed from his post at Waterville’s St. Joseph Maronite Catholic Church this week after being accused of abusing a teenager in Connecticut 15 years ago.
WATERVILLE — Experts who deal with sexual abuse issues say it is understandable that parishioners of St. Joseph Maronite Catholic Church are in shock after learning that their former priest, the Rev. Larry Jensen, was removed from the priestly ministry amid allegations that he sexually abused a teenage boy.
“I think that with a lot of cases … that when somebody who is part of a community, who is well-known and well-liked and something like this comes out, it makes us question our own beliefs and what we know to be true and it can be very, very hard,” said Cara Courchesne, communications director for Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
Jensen, 62, was the priest at St. Joseph for 10 years until Sunday, when Bishop Gregory Mansour of the Maronite Catholic Eparchy of Saint Maron of Brooklyn, New York, read a letter in the church saying Jensen had been removed from priestly ministry and that the Rev. James Doran would replace him.
Michael Thomas, vicar general of the Brooklyn Eparchy, said he confronted Jensen about the alleged abuse of a 17-year-old in Danbury, Connecticut, 15 years ago and Jensen did not deny it.
Thomas said Tuesday that the eparchy had not received any additional reports of sexual abuse by Jensen. The church has asked anyone else who might have been abused to report it to authorities.
Meanwhile, parishioners continue to mourn the loss of Jensen.
“He’s a good man and I hate seeing this happen to him, but there are rules and regulations,” Dale Sturtevant, a 45-year member of St. Joseph’s, said Tuesday. “There’s no variation on the predatory scale.”
Sturtevant said the new priest, Doran, celebrated Mass on Tuesday morning and parishioners got to meet him.
“He’s going to be a healing priest, and that is a good thing because that’s what we need,” Sturtevant said. “I was really angry with the church, very angry. I do not like the way the system is rigged with no forgiveness, and I actually asked Bishop Gregory when I saw him on Sunday, ‘Are my sins now not forgiven? Why can’t the church forgive Father?’ ”
Thomas said Tuesday that he feels badly if parishioners have the impression that Jensen was removed without cause.
“Father could have denied it and he did not, and that’s why everything moved kind of quickly, because of his maturity and his honesty, so I greatly respect him (for that),” Thomas said, adding that said he believes Jensen was being truthful by not denying the abuse. Jensen told Thomas the Connecticut case was an isolated incident, and Thomas indicated Monday that he had no reason to doubt that was the case.
Thomas said the abuse victim was a male nearly 18 years old, and the abuse occurred when Jensen was a priest at St. Anthony Maronite Catholic Church in Danbury, Connecticut, where he worked for eight years before coming to Waterville. Before serving at St. Anthony, he served 10 years at St. Michael the Archangel Maronite Catholic Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Thomas said.
Attempts to reach Jensen have been unsuccessful and Thomas said he does not know who the victim is. An attorney reported the alleged abuse to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport, which then notified the Brooklyn Eparchy, the Connecticut Department of Children and Families and Danbury police.
Messages left Monday and Tuesday with the Danbury police were not returned.
Courchesne said some people who have committed crimes do turn their lives around and become upstanding citizens, but the impact on victims can’t be ignored.
“It’s not forgotten to the person who he perpetrated the abuse against,” Courchesne said. “It’s not forgotten to the person’s family, for the people in the person’s community. I think that what we’ve learned through a variety of cases like this … is that it doesn’t just go away.”
Melanie Sakoda, a board member of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said that while she is not familiar with the Waterville case, it is important that the church permanently removed Jensen from priestly duties.
“That’s a sign,” Sakoda said. “They didn’t do that easily, in my experience, but that’s something the parishioners should be looking at.”
Also, parishioners must be careful about defending Jensen publicly, because it might inhibit other potential victims from coming forward, Courchesne and Sakoda said.
“If you come forward too strongly and say, ‘Oh, he didn’t do it,’ is a child going to feel comfortable in saying, ‘Mom, Dad, it happened to me too’?”
Sakoda, who volunteers as a SNAP leader and board member, maintains a website, www.pokrov.org, that tracks abusers in the Eastern Rite churches. The Maronite church in the U.S., is relatively tiny compared to its Roman Catholic counterpart, she said.
“In my experience, such tightly knit communities make it more difficult for victims to come forward,” she said.
Sturtevant, the 45-year parishioner, said she has had deaths in her family recently, including her husband, and Jensen was helpful to her.
“I’ve been praying for Father Larry,” she said. “He was my godsend. I feel like I’ve just been confronted with another death, losing Father Larry, because he was there to comfort me and he was my friend and it hurt terribly.”
Sturtevant said about 75 people regularly attend Sunday services at the church. Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney who was been involved in more than 2,000 cases involving sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, said church officials should focus on caring for the victim.
“The child was a minor,” he said. “… That is against the law, immoral and very harmful to the victim.”
Both Courchesne and Garabedian said parishioners often react with disbelief to allegations of abuse by their priest.
“I think that the lesson from all of this is that these are complex crimes,” Courchesne said, “and there are complex reactions to them.”
Amy Calder can be contacted at 861-9247 or at: