Misuse of Musical Ministry

On February 15, 2018, our firm held a press conference in Long Island, NY, and exposed the name of a predatory priest, Fr. Peter Charland, who found a path to his victims through musical youth groups in the parishes he was assigned to.  By all accounts, Fr. Charland was a charismatic, charming leader who coerced his way into children’s lives through well-known grooming tactics.  Survivor, Steven Werner, a former member of the P.J. Folk Singers led by Fr. Charland, courageously spoke at the press conference and acknowledged that the abuse he suffered at the hands of Fr. Charland was not his fault.  He also acknowledged that it was not the fault of the parents and/or guardians who trusted their kids to the priests and parishes they were involved in.  Steve and other survivors were manipulated by Fr. Charland and the institution that allowed Fr. Charland access to children. This serves as a cautionary tale for parents.  According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, more than 90% of child sexual abuse victims are abused by someone they know. Predators are often charismatic and carefully gain the trust of children and their parents. They could be the parish priest, the music instructor, or even a family member.

Fr. Charland isn’t the first perpetrator to use music to gain access to children. During the press conference, Patrick Wall, a former priest and an expert in clergy sexual abuse, cited two additional cases in which predatory priests used musical programs to gain access to children, including Mgr. Richard Coughlin and The Polka Padre, Fr. Robert Kapoun.  Mgr. Coughlin started out in Boston and was sent to lead a boys’ choir in Los Angeles, CA.  Fr. Kapoun had a band that played polka music at mass and at churches across Minnesota. 

The Suffolk County Grand Jury Report from 2003 identifies patterns and practices of predatory sexual offenders in ministry who seek positions in the church that allow them access and power over children.  Page 6 of the report references music as the catalyst that brought “Priest A” together with his first victim.  The victim, a young boy, spent the majority of his young life at the church as an altar server, music minister and member of the parish folk group.  “Priest A” was later identified by Newsday as Father Joseph Mundy.  A second example in the Grand Jury Report, on page 56, cited “Priest J” who pursued two sisters who were active in the parish school and folk group.  “Priest J” was identified by Newsday as Father Nicholas Uterstein. Although these incidents were perpetrated by different offenders, they have something in common; they use similar patterns to groom children. These grooming patterns are methodical, subtle, and slowly escalate over time. Musical groups allow a predator unique access to children for extended periods of time.  Through practices, rehearsals, and traveling for performances, predators are given time to build relationships with the children entrusted to them. 

Fr. Charland disappeared from records, and the Diocese of Rockville Centre made no effort to alert the public of the danger he posed to children. He should have never been allowed to work with children. Full transparency is a critical component to ensuring that predators like Fr. Charland are not allowed to violate unsuspecting communities.  It’s time to hold institutions accountable for the people they entrust with a child’s safety.