Watchdog Group Highlights Accused Priest’s Movements

SPRINGFIELD – Members of a group that calls attention to clergy abuse held a press conference yesterday and said that a priest with ties to Western Massachusetts was a defendant in a Maryland sexual abuse lawsuit that was recently settled for $1.2 million.

Outside the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield chancery on Elliot Street, members of the group, Survival Network of those Abused by Priests, said that the Rev. Aaron Joseph Cote, a native of Holyoke, frequently visits this area.

Barbara A. Blaine, president of the Chicago-based group, said, “Our concern is that (Cote) comes to this community and is walking the street, and nobody is monitoring him.”

Cote served at parishes in South Hadley and Westfield during the early 1990s. He could not be reached for comment yesterday.

A spokesman for the Springfield diocese said no complaints have been made against Cote in Western Massachusetts, even after news of the lawsuit was reported in the diocesan newspaper The Catholic Observer and in a church publication in Westfield.

In 2005 Cote was named as a defendant in a lawsuit by a former altar boy from Germantown, Md., who alleged the priest had sexually abused him for several months in 2002 and 2003 when he was 14 and 15 years old, according to an Aug. 24 article in The Capital newspaper in Annapolis, Md.

The suit, which named Cote, the Dominican Friars and Brothers Province of St. Joseph in New York, and the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., was settled in August with a payment of $1.2 million to the former altar boy, the newspaper reported.

As part of the settlement, none of the parties admitted wrongdoing.

Two years before the lawsuit was filed, Cote was reassigned from Maryland to Providence, R.I., where he was appointed a youth minister at St. Pius V Church. When news of the legal action broke, the Providence diocese removed him from public ministry, according to The Providence (R.I.) Journal.

In Western Massachusetts, Cote was assigned to St. Theresa’s Parish in South Hadley for six months in 1991 and then spent four years with St. Mary’s parish in Westfield from 1991 through 1995, according to The Catholic Observer.

Mark E. Dupont, spokesman for the Springfield diocese, said that when the Maryland lawsuit was filed, the pastor of St. Mary’s parish ran an announcement in the Sunday bulletin that notified the parish of the allegations. The announcement urged anyone with information of any sexual misconduct by Cote or any other clergy to call the diocese’s toll-free hot line.

The Catholic Observer also ran an article in December 2005, detailing the allegations in the lawsuit and Cote’s background with the diocese.

No one came forward to make complaints against Cote, Dupont said.

Dupont also said that Cote is not a priest with the Springfield diocese, but with the Dominican Order.

He said the diocese encourages all victims of clergy abuse to come forward and report it by calling the diocesan hot line at (800) 842-9055.

During the press briefing, Blaine alleged that Cote had abused two local youths as recently as last year, but offered few details and no substantiation for the allegations.

The allegations could not be confirmed with local police or the Hampden County district attorney’s office.