BAR HARBOR, Maine — A former Catholic priest resigned Wednesday from the Bar Harbor Housing Authority board after being told that his criminal past was being investigated, according to town officials.
Walter Dayton Salisbury, 79, has been convicted twice of sexually abusing children, according to his former employer and Hancock County Sheriff William Clark.
Terrance Kelley, the Bar Harbor Housing Authority’s executive director, said Salisbury verbally resigned from the housing authority board Wednesday, after Kelley told him the Bangor Daily News was looking into allegations that Salisbury has a history of criminal sex offenses. In direct response, Kelley said, Salisbury told him that he was resigning, effective immediately.
Contacted Thursday evening by phone, Salisbury declined to comment when asked about his criminal convictions. He said he resigned from the housing authority board because he had been on the board for 13 or 14 years and “it was time for me to come off.”
Salisbury denied being removed from ministry by his employer, the Society of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart, after his second criminal conviction in 1993. He said he resigned voluntarily for health reasons.
Salisbury declined further comment.
The Bangor Daily News began looking into Salisbury’s past after receiving an e-mail about his convictions and his position on the housing board.
Salisbury, who lives in housing owned by the authority, had served on the board as a volunteer resident representative for several years, but municipal and housing authority officials said they did not know when his tenure began. Last April, after town officials realized state law required the Town Council to make such appoint-ments, the council officially appointed Salisbury to the board.
Salisbury lives in a building that has only older residents so he is not believed to have had any close contact with children as a resident or as a housing board member, according to housing authority officials.
Ruth Eveland, chairman of Bar Harbor’s elected Town Council, said Wednesday she didn’t know that officials said Salisbury has a history of sexually abusing children. In light of Salisbury’s situation, she added, the Town Council may want to explore whether it should start asking people who volunteer for municipal positions if they have criminal convictions in their past.
“That kind of discussion would be entirely appropriate,” Eveland said.
Salisbury worked out of state for the Josephite Society for more than 30 years as a Catholic priest, according to a prepared statement originally released by the society in 2004. Between 1959 and 1993, Salisbury was assigned to work in parishes in Alabama, Lousiana, Texas and Washington, D.C., the statement says.
In the statement, Josephite officials say Salisbury was charged and convicted under Texas law of committing indecency with a child in 1978 in Houston. He pleaded no contest to that charge, according to the statement. He also was accused in Alabama of child molestation, the statement added.
According to a letter written by Sheriff Clark on March 11, 2003, Salisbury was convicted June 5, 1979, in Texas on the indecency charge and was given three years of probation. Clark wrote the letter to Ellsworth resident Robert McAteer, a member of the child sex abuse victim advocacy group Voice of the Faithful, who had contacted the sheriff with concerns about Salisbury’s past conduct.
The Josephite statement and Clark’s letter each say Salisbury was convicted in April 1993 in Washington, D.C., as a result of another child molestation investigation.
According to an article published April 16, 1993, in the Washington Times, Salisbury had turned himself in to Washington, D.C., police the previous day after being charged with having sexual relations with a young boy. That incident had happened on Jan. 27 of that year as Salisbury was tutoring a boy in the rectory of St. Luke Roman Catholic Church, the article said.
The Josephite statement says Salisbury was convicted of assault after he pleaded guilty in that case.
Clark’s letter indicates that as a result of the Washington investigation, Salisbury was convicted of committing an indecent act on a minor and was sentenced to serve one year in prison, with all of it suspended, and one year of probation.
“My office has determined that considering the above offenses, Mr. Salisbury is not required under Maine law to register as a sex offender,” Clark wrote in the 2003 letter. “The investigator from my office did concur that considering the type of offense Mr. Salisbury was convicted of, he should not be permitted to participate in child activities without constant supervision.”
Clark and Donna Cote, supervisor of Maine’s sex offender registry, each said this week that it was unclear if changes in state law since 2003 now require Salisbury to register in Maine as a sex offender. It depends on sex offender registry laws in Washington, D.C., and Texas, Clark and Cote said.
Clark said Wednesday that he is not planning to revisit the issue of whether Salisbury is required to register in Maine. The sheriff added that he would look into it again if a constituent asked him to do so.
Kelley, the authority’s executive director, said if Salisbury is required to register in Maine as a sex offender, he would not be allowed to live in the authority’s housing. He said he was “shocked” to hear that Salisbury had been convicted of sexually abusing children.
“He’s always done a great job on the board,” Kelley said.
Brian Tucker, a Baltimore attorney representing the Josephite Society, said Wednesday that since 1993, Salisbury has been prohibited from representing himself as a priest in good standing.
Tucker said he was aware that Salisbury has been listed as “Father W. Dayton Salisbury” on the housing authority page of Bar Harbor’s official website.
“I called the town and told them to take [“father”] off of there,” Tucker said before Salisbury’s resignation had been made public. “He is not to hold himself out as a priest.”
Salisbury’s name was removed from the town’s website later Wednesday.
Tucker said he was not familiar with details of Salisbury’s criminal history beyond what the society described in the statement. Josephite officials wrote in the 2004 statement that the decision to allow Salisbury to continue priestly ministry despite the multiple allegations of child abuse “would not be repeated today.”
Multiple attempts this week to contact other Josephite Society officials in Baltimore who may be familiar with Salisbury’s criminal convictions were unsuccessful.
Eveland said this week that she recently had seen an e-mail alleging that Salisbury had molested children but was unaware that the allegations had been verified by the Josephite Society and by Sheriff Clark.
“I was completely unaware of it,” Eveland said.
Bar Harbor Town Manager Dana Reed said Tuesday that he also did not know of Salisbury’s abusive past. He said the town requires volunteers to fill out a questionnaire when they ask to serve on local municipal committees, but the questionnaire does not ask if the applicant has any criminal convictions.
Paul Kendrick, an advocate for victims of clergy sex abuse who lives in Freeport, said Tuesday that he recently contacted the Bangor Daily News and Bar Harbor town officials to make them aware of Salisbury’s criminal record. Kendrick, who has been critical of how Catholic church leaders have dealt with abuse victims, said local residents should know about Salisbury’s criminal history.
“Nobody in the community is aware he is a convicted child abuser,” Kendrick said.
Kendrick declined to voice an opinion on whether it was appropriate for Salisbury to serve on the housing board.
“That’s the community’s decision,” Kendrick said. “No one is infringing upon his civil rights [by disclosing his past].”
When Salisbury, a Bar Harbor native, moved back to Maine and why it took years for his past to come to light is not clear.
Sue Bernard, spokesperson for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, said Monday that the diocese obtained a copy of the Josephite Society statement in 2004 and made it publicly available that same year. She said Salisbury never worked for the diocese or served as a priest in Maine.
Greg Grant, chairman of the local housing authority board, said Monday that “quite a few years ago,” housing authority officials had heard allegations about Salisbury’s past.
“We couldn’t find anything at the time,” Grant said. “If something popped up years ago, he probably would never have gotten on the board.”
Grant said he believes Salisbury has done a good job representing the interests of his fellow tenants to the housing board.
“It’s unfortunate,” Grant said. “It’s unfortunate all the way around.”