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Priest abuse group demands apology from Bar Harbor

Posted Dec. 22, 2010, at 10:33 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:53 a.m.

BAR HARBOR, Maine — A national group sent a statement and letters Wednesday to local officials asking for an apology over the appointment of a convicted child abuser to the town’s housing authority board.

Town officials, however, said they had not received any statement or letters from the group, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

The statement released Wednesday by SNAP asks town councilors and housing authority board members to “apologize for their recklessness” in appointing Walter Dayton Salisbury, 79, to the board and requests that Salisbury be banned from living in the authority’s properties.

Salisbury, a former Catholic priest, served as a resident member of the board from the late 1990s until Dec. 1, when he resigned two days before his criminal past was revealed in a Bangor Daily News article. Salisbury lives in a housing authority building for elderly residents in Bar Harbor.

According to police officials and Salisbury’s former employer, The Society of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart, Salisbury twice has been convicted of sexually abusing children, once in 1993 in Washington, D.C., and once in the late 1970s in Houston. The Josephite Society removed Salisbury from ministry in 1993, after the second conviction, and prohibited him from publicly representing himself as a priest.

Salisbury was first appointed by town councilors to the housing authority board this past April. He had served on the board for several years before the council found out state law requires the council to make such appointments.

Contacted by phone Wednesday evening, SNAP’s executive director, David Clohessy, said that municipal officials should take steps to make sure Salisbury does not have contact with children. Sex offenders have relatively high rates of committing repeat offenses, he said, and the public often does not suspect older people of criminal behavior.

If Salisbury is required to move out of authority housing, Clohessy said, he is less likely to have contact with children who may come to visit other residents in his building.

“Nobody looks at a gray-haired, slow-moving, elderly guy with thick glasses and thinks ‘criminal,’” Clohessy said.

Clohessy said Wednesday that the statement and letters were generally mailed, faxed and e-mailed Wednesday to members of the town council and housing authority board.

Dana Reed, Bar Harbor’s town manager, said Wednesday that he had not seen copies of the documents and so declined to comment.

Terrance Kelley, the housing authority’s executive director, said Wednesday that the authority has a policy of not allowing anyone who is required to register in Maine as a convicted sex offender to live in authority housing. The authority checks the criminal histories in Maine of each of its prospective tenants, he said, and has evicted people after their criminal histories have been discovered.

As “egregious” as Salisbury’s criminal history may be, Kelley said, he is not required to register as a sex offender in Maine and thus is allowed to live in authority housing. State and county law enforcement officials have said that whether Salisbury would have to register in Maine as a sex offender depends on sex offender registry laws in Texas and Washington, D.C.

Kelley said SNAP is welcome to try to get Maine to change its sex offender registry laws. Short of that happening, he added, housing authority officials are unprepared to decide on a case-by-case basis who shouldn’t be allowed to live in the authority’s housing.

“I have to have something to go by, and for us it is that registry,” Kelley said. “Otherwise, it would be up to me to interpret. I’m not the judicial system.”

Despite the outrage expressed by SNAP in its letters and statement, there seems to be comparatively little public outcry in Bar Harbor over Salisbury’s former service on the authority board.

Privately, some local residents have expressed dismay that Salisbury served on the board until his past criminal convictions were about to be publicized, even though he had no official contact with children in his role as a housing authority board member.

According to Reed, the town has not received any kind of formal complaints about Salisbury since he resigned from the authority board. The town had received some complaints, which also were sent to the Bangor Daily News, before Salisbury resigned.

Kelley said he hasn’t received any further complaints about Salisbury, but he has had a few conversations about Salisbury’s situation. He said most of those conversations have focused on sympathy people feel for Salisbury’s mother, who is more than 100 years old and lives in the same authority housing development as her son. Another conversation was more about the Catholic Church leadership than about Salisbury, he said.

Twice since Salisbury’s resignation, the Town Council has met, but there has been no discussion about him. On Dec. 7, without any comment, members of the council voted to accept Salisbury’s resignation and to send him a letter thanking him for his 14 years of service on the board.

Town Council Chairman Ruth Eveland, contacted Wednesday evening at home, said that housing authority officials have said that despite his criminal history, Salisbury did a good job as a housing authority board member. She also said that the town routinely issues such letters to any local official who leaves his post in the middle of a term.

“It is a formula statement,” she said. “There is no larger implication.”

Eveland said she thinks the council may want to discuss whether the town should try to find out more about the backgrounds of prospective volunteer committee and board members before making such appointments.

She said she mentioned this briefly to her fellow councilors at their meeting Tuesday night, but that no date was set for such a discussion.

Eveland said she is sensitive to the issue of taking steps to protect children because, when it became known a few years ago that former local children’s choir director Thomas Wallace was molesting children, she was one of the people who reported Wallace to the police. Wallace was convicted in 2006 of unlawful sexual contact and assault.

“I have a fairly strong sense about the need to deal with this sort of thing,” Eveland said.

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