MADAWASKA – An Arlington, Va.-based Catholic society of missionary priests has suspended a retired priest now living in Madawaska from all duties as a priest of the Catholic Church.
The Rev. Austin Walsh, custodian general of the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity, has suspended the Rev. Ernest Justin Hill for disobedience. Walsh also wrote in a press release e-mailed to the news media that Hill was under investigation for inappropriate behavior with teen-agers.
Hill, 80, lived for two years in Grand Isle and has an apartment on West Main Street in Madawaska. The priest said last week that he has not conducted public services since he has been in northern Maine. He also denied allegations of inappropriate behavior with young people.
“They don’t want me ministering, and I have not been,” he said.
Sue Bernard, director of communications with the Diocese of Portland, which includes all of Maine, said recently that Hill has been known to the diocese for more than 20 years. He worked as a priest in Maine, with diocesan authority, in the early 1980s.
“We are hearing he is conducting services in Maine,” she said. “He has had no ties with the diocese since 1982.
“He has been refused permission to work as a priest in Maine” by the diocese, she said.
According to information from the diocese, Hill was given duties in the diocese in January 1979. He filled in at parishes in Wallagrass, in Stonington at St. Mary Star of the Sea, and at others through January 1980. He also had authority to do the special ministry of preaching for retreats from February to December 1980. He filled in at other parishes through February 1981.
Bernard said he continued to ask for work until the end of 1982, but was denied.
“It was not because of his behavior with children, but because of his preaching methods, which were considered divisive and disturbing,” she said. “His manner of ministry created pastoral problems.”
She said she could not elaborate.
“It was made quite clear, to him and others, he was not renewed through the 1980s while he came back and forth into the state,” she said. “We heard of formal disobedience from his order in 1995, when he refused orders to return to the order.”
She said Hill was told he was not to have any external ministries in Maine and told not to celebrate private Masses in homes. It is all right for him to celebrate Mass in his own home, but not for other people.
“The allegation of misbehavior with young people came in 1999-2000, and that came from the end of the 1970s or early 1980s when he worked in Maine,” Bernard said. “It’s something that happened in Maine, and we contacted his order and civil authorities.”
The last correspondence the diocese had with him, since 1990, was a letter from him asking for some kind of ministry, which was denied, Bernard said.
Hill said in an interview last week that his problems with his order began with the notoriety of the cases that came to light in recent months in Boston.
The Missionary Servants “want me to see a psychiatrist, again, and I won’t,” the priest said.
“They want me to go to a clinic that is notorious for looking for things to make priests unfit for ministry,” Hill said. “I have never been under investigation for sexual abuse.”
The priest acknowledged there have been allegations, but he said none of them were investigated.
The Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity is a Roman Catholic religious congregation of priests and brothers engaged in parish and social work in areas of poverty and neglect in the United States and Latin America.
Walsh, the order’s custodian general, announced the suspension last month in newspaper advertisements. The Aroostook Republican, a weekly newspaper in Caribou, is the only Aroostook County newspaper to carry the advertisement in its July 31 edition.
Walsh also sent a press release to other outlets in Maine. Church World, Maine’s Catholic diocesan newspaper, published the press release Aug. 1. The Bangor Daily News has decided not to pursue Walsh’s inquiry about the advertisement, according to a BDN advertising department executive.
Repeated efforts to reach Walsh have been unsuccessful. A missionary staff member said Monday that the society official was out of town until next week.
“It is with sadness and regret” that the action had to be taken, Walsh stated in his press release. “Father Hill is not authorized by the Church to perform any pastoral or priestly duties.
“Father Hill is being investigated for inappropriate behavior with teen-agers,” Walsh claimed in his press release. “Public authorities have been notified, and notices have been placed in newspapers to alert the public.”
Walsh claimed Hill has repeatedly been ordered to report to the Missionary Servants’ Center in Maryland over the last several years, but has refused.
“This is a question of obedience,” Walsh said. “We are doing what we believe is necessary to protect the public.
“In light of the guidance adopted by the U.S. Council of Bishops, we believe that we should remove Father Hill from a pastoral environment for psychological evaluation.”
Legal authorities in Maine would not confirm if Hill’s case is among a list given to them by the Diocese of Portland several months ago.
Stephanie Anderson, Cumberland County district attorney, who is pursuing cases of sexual abuse of minors in Maine, has not returned repeated telephone inquiries.
Neale Adams, Aroostook County district attorney, said that Hill’s name “sounds familiar,” when asked last week if he knew the name. Adams said he has received eight to 10 files about sexual abuse involving priests.
He said most of the cases are past the statute of limitations for prosecution, and he didn’t think any of them could be investigated.
“I might have a file on him,” Adams said when reached away from his office. “It would not be an investigation at this point.”
On Monday, Adams would not verify that Hill’s name was among the files he received for possible investigation.
“Even if it was, it [the divulging of his name] could be an unwarranted invasion of privacy which could compromise an investigation and prosecution,” Adams said.
Hill said he originally was suspended by the order in July 1994 for not obeying, which involved his not going back for a fifth evaluation. He said he won’t go to St. Luke’s in Silver Spring, Md., an evaluation center for priests.
“The whole thing is a cover-up by the society,” he said. “They won’t even investigate allegations against me.”
Hill explained he has been living the life of an anonymous person in northern Maine. He said he doesn’t attend public functions at churches, but goes there by himself privately. He said he does not conduct any pastoral ceremonies and celebrates Mass by himself privately.
He said his society even took his pension away. As a retired priest, he received $1,250 a month until July 1. He since has been told he won’t get any more stipend. He says he now lives on Supplemental Security Income from the Social Security Administration.
“I have a lot of friends in the St. John Valley, and they are enraged,” Hill said. “I have a right to my good name.”
“The society sent me a warning about this document they want to release,” he said.
Hill has been a priest for 51 years, since June 5, 1951, and with the society for 58 years since 1944, first as a brother before becoming a priest.
He claims there are no specific allegations against him. He said this is “the first time I hear there were allegations. Allegations against me by a niece are all lies.” The priest would not explain further.
“At my age, I am leading a nice quiet life here,” Hill said. “They left me alone for 10 years, knowing I was not a predator. I lived in a motor home, traveling around.”