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Men say LI priest who led singing group abused them in mid-1970s

The Rev. Peter Charland, seen here in 1972

The Rev. Peter Charland, seen here in 1972 during Mass at Saints Philip and James Church in St. James. Credit: Barbara Ryan Hausman

Eight men who were members of a popular youth folk group at a Catholic church in St. James in the 1970s have filed reports with the Suffolk County district attorney saying they were sexually abused as boys by the charismatic priest who ran the group.

The men filed the accusations as part of the second phase of a program established by the Diocese of Rockville Centre to compensate clergy sex-abuse victims, according to Manhattan-based attorney Michael Reck, who is representing them.

Phase Two of the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program is for people who never previously filed complaints with the diocese or law enforcement agencies.

All eight were members of the PJ Folksingers group at Saints Philip and James Roman Catholic Church. They allege the Rev. Peter Charland, who died in 2004 at 58, abused them as the group soared in popularity, packing churches, cutting an album and even going on a three-week tour of Romania.

The folk group grew from about 10 members to 160 in just three years, according to people who belonged to it.

“This priest had everybody convinced he was the best thing since sliced bread,” said Steven Werner, 60, of North Carolina, the only one of the eight who has spoken publicly. Charland, he said, abused him in the church rectory, in the priest’s sports car and aboard a small plane that Charland piloted.

Charland was not among 23 clergy members described in a 2003 Suffolk County grand jury report that investigated sexual abuse by priests in the diocese dating to its founding in 1957.

The diocese had no knowledge of wrongdoing by Charland before the men filed complaints in March, spokesman Sean Dolan said.

“We have not, to date, located or seen any documentation indicating that any complaint of abuse against this priest was made to the diocese previous to the IRCP,” Dolan said in a statement.

The Suffolk district attorney’s office said it does not confirm or deny whether it is conducting an investigation or has received allegations about an individual.

Charland was ordained as a priest in the diocese in 1972 and requested a leave of absence in 1975, Dolan said. He was permanently removed from the priesthood in 1978.

The diocese declined to say why Charland requested the leave or was removed, which meant he no longer could perform functions such as celebrating Mass or performing weddings, or present himself as a priest.

Charland later married, raised a family and for decades ran a private psychotherapy practice focused on children with learning disabilities, said his widow, Betty Charland Balthazard, who has remarried. She and Peter Charland met when they were in high school in Connecticut.

“I have no reason to believe” the allegations are true, said Charland Balthazard. “It seems kind of crazy. . . . Those kids in the group loved him and there was more than one that tried keeping in touch with him.”

“I don’t know what these kids are getting out of this, but there must be something. I’m almost wondering if it isn’t something financial,” she added. “Somebody better come up with some evidence, because I think this is all greed.”

Werner said he never said anything to anyone about the alleged sexual abuse because he was embarrassed and ashamed.

In 2013, he finally told his mother, Mary M. Werner, a former prosecutor in the Suffolk County district attorney’s office who served as a New York State Supreme Court justice from 1991 to 2006, including 12 years as the administrative judge in charge of the courts in Suffolk County.

“I don’t think I have ever received a harder phone call than when Steve called and disclosed” the alleged sexual abuse, said Mary Werner, who is retired.

“It was awful and it continues to be awful,” she said. “I just can’t describe how I felt as a mother having missed it and having thought, as many other parents thought, that Father Peter Charland was a breath of fresh air. He was exactly the opposite.”

Steven Werner first publicly aired the accusations against Charland at a news conference in February. In subsequent interviews, he gave specifics on the places where he said Charland had abused him.

The diocese started the reconciliation program in October, with the aim of providing clergy sex-abuse victims with financial compensation if they agree not to take legal action against the diocese. The Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn are conducting similar programs, split into the same two phases.

Phase One was for people who previously filed a complaint with the diocese or with law enforcement officials. Phase Two, which started Feb. 1 and ends Monday, is for people who say they were abused, but who never filed a complaint.

Camille Biros, one of the independent administrators who is handling the programs for Rockville Centre, the Brooklyn diocese and the New York archdiocese, said it is more difficult to determine the legitimacy of allegations in Phase Two cases.

The administrators ask complainants for corroborating documentation, such as records or notes from therapy or counseling sessions, she said.

“If they have absolutely nothing at all, and it’s against a clergy member who has no prior claims — there aren’t that many like that, but there are a few — we will make those ineligible,” she said.

Phase Two claimants are required to report their allegations to the district attorney in the county where the alleged abuse occurred. Biros said she believes that requirement has “precluded a lot of potentially fraudulent submissions.”

The majority of cases submitted in New York and Brooklyn in both Phase One and Phase Two have been deemed legitimate, and financial settlements were offered, Biros said.

Until Werner came forward, Charland had never been named publicly as an alleged abuser.

That Charland was not included in the 2003 grand jury report suggests that “there are likely more perpetrators who have not been disclosed and not been discovered,” said Patrick Wall, a former Catholic priest who now works with Reck.

Some clergy sex-abuse victims and their advocates have called on the diocese to release all its files on accused priests. The diocese has said it does not plan to do so.

The diocese hopes people with allegations of clergy sex abuse will participate in the reconciliation program, Dolan said.

“We are deeply inspired to see survivors come forward in Phase One and Phase Two,” he said. “We continue our commitment and vigilance to the protection of children in our church and in society.”

Charland arrived at Saints Philip and James in 1971 as a deacon after studies at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington. Following his ordination a year later, he made his mark quickly.

The group he started soon became popular, performing religious songs, folk-rock tunes by Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens, and the parable-based musical “Godspell.”

When the PJ Folksingers performed during Mass on Sunday mornings, people would clap and dance in the aisles, said Barbara Ryan Hausman of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a member of the group and its official secretary.

Charland “was like a people magnet,” Ryan Hausman said. “He was a showman. He was a sensation. He did incredible things. His charisma just went through the whole parish, made such a difference, and turned us on to Jesus Christ.”

Werner, encouraged by his parents, joined the group in 1971, when he was an eighth-grader in public school.

With the group on a roll, Charland proposed taking the young singers and musicians to Communist Romania to perform in the midst of the Cold War. He organized the journey through a New York City-based group called Ambassadors for Friendship.

They had to raise $50,000 to finance the trip, and for months raked leaves, washed cars, cleaned out garages and ran flea markets to come up with the money. They recorded an album to raise funds, too. Charland wrote most of the songs, Ryan Hausman said.

A total of 64 children and their adult chaperones left on July 31, 1974.

Ryan Hausman said she had spoken with six of the alleged victims as far back as 1994, when PJ Folksingers’ former members had a reunion. That was the first time she heard of the accusations, she said.

“As I look back, I could see how he orchestrated the whole thing,” she said.

Charland would select certain members of the group and reward them with special attention, leadership positions, key roles in the plays or material gifts, according to Werner and Ryan Hausman. Werner said he was given the role of Jesus in “Godspell” even though he had a poor singing voice. The priest also gave him an expensive trumpet, he said.

Charland would give him private lessons in a room in the rectory, to practice his instrument, songs or parts in the plays.

During these activities and others, Werner said, the priest sexually abused him. Eventually, the practice sessions in the rectory moved upstairs into Charland’s bedroom. Werner estimates he had more than 100 “practice sessions” with Charland in the rectory.

The alleged abuse continued through Werner’s senior year in high school in 1975-76, after Charland had left the rectory and rented a house in the St. James area, Werner said.

He said the alleged sexual abuse caused him years of problems, including substance abuse and depression. It was not until he started therapy, he said, that he decided to tell his family.

He said Charland called him in the mid-1990s, trying to make amends. “I told him never to contact me again,” Werner said.

Compensation for clergy sex-abuse victims

The Archdiocese of New York, Diocese of Brooklyn and Diocese of Rockville Centre, in separate but similar programs, are offering financial compensation to victims of clergy sex abuse if they agree not to file a lawsuit against the church in the future.

The Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Programs have two phases. Here are figures on the number of claims made and how many had been approved as of April 23. Reviews continue on remaining cases.

Phase One — for people who previously filed a complaint with the diocese or law enforcement.

Diocese of Rockville Centre: 105 of 145 claims approved

Archdiocese of New York: 146 of 147 approved

Diocese of Brooklyn: 212 of 224 approved

Phase Two — for people who never made a prior claim of abuse.

Diocese of Rockville Centre: 0 of 43 claims approved

Archdiocese of New York: 119 of 203 claims approved

Diocese of Brooklyn: 60 of 223 claims approved

Source: Camille Biros, co-administrator of the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Programs with Kenneth Feinberg

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