By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
HOLYOKE, Mass. – Nelly DeJesus wants answers. She wants to know how Gregory Lisby, a suspended Episcopal priest and collector of child pornography, came in 2019 to teach kindergarten at Morgan Elementary School where her four grandchildren are enrolled.
Lisby stunned the school community six days into the job last September by resigning at 2:30 a.m. with a note explaining: “I’ve been accused of an awful crime.” Federal agents had raided his home, found a cache of illicit material and charged him with child porn possession. In February, Lisby pled guilty. He awaits sentencing, which could bring up to 20 years in prison.
Now DeJesus wants to understand why the Holyoke School District hired him. He’d lost his job as rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Worcester after a 2018 investigation found he’d violated boundaries and had an inappropriate relationship. To be restored to good standing in the priesthood, he would have needed to petition Western Massachusetts Bishop Douglas Fisher after serving his two-year suspension.
She’s also asking why that same Title IV disciplinary investigation didn’t uncover more about Lisby’s past. “Devastating credible evidence” that Lisby sexually abused a teenager has since come to light, according to the Rt. Rev. Fisher, but that evidence only turned up after the criminal probe began. Lisby’s attorney, Timothy Watkins, did not respond to request for comment on the sex abuse allegation.
“Why didn’t [the church] just keep on with the investigation and find out what was going on?,” DeJesus said as she picked up her grandchildren at school a few days after the sex abuse allegation was announced. “Keep on track, you know? I mean, he comes to work in the public school system after you were already checking him in your church. Why let him keep on with what he was doing?”
The picture of Lisby’s history remains incomplete. All three dioceses where Lisby served since his ordination to the priesthood in 2007 – Rhode Island, Newark and Western Massachusetts – put out calls asking anyone with information about misconduct by Lisby to report it. Bishops of Rhode Island and Newark have said the newly alleged sex abuse by Lisby did not happen in their dioceses.
But some details and related concerns have begun to surface, shedding light on how his alleged criminal behavior and abuse went undetected. Both the diocese and the school district limited their inquiries to a field of questions that failed to bring out troubling information in Lisby’s past. Whether they could or should have done more is now a matter of spirited debate.
Fisher contends he acted properly in narrowly framing the 2018 disciplinary inquiry. For three years, Lisby had been rector at All Saints, a prominent downtown parish in New England’s second largest city. The investigation found he’d had an inappropriate nonsexual relationship with an adult, Fisher said.
He declined to elaborate except to say the offense fell under the prohibited category of “conduct unbecoming of a priest.” He did not put out a call for other potential victims to come forward at that time, he said, because he had no reason to suspect serial misconduct.
“When I suspended him, there was no evidence of something with children. That wasn’t on the radar screen at all,” Fisher said. “I was as shocked as anyone on September 13 when my phone literally blew up. It was the FBI having arrested him for child pornography.”
Some say Fisher’s inquiry might have been appropriately circumscribed. The diocese had a duty to investigate existing allegations and determine whether any constituted violations of Title IV of the Episcopal Church Canons, according to Christopher Hayes, a canon lawyer in San Francisco. Whether to go further and see if other aggrieved parties exist depends on the case.
“It has to do with the nature of the offense,” Hayes said. “If someone is taking money that belongs to the congregation, there may not be reason to believe that there’s any other financial case out there. But with cases involving sexual misconduct, there’s a certain human tendency for those not to be isolated.”
Because the facts of the 2018 investigation remain unknown, Lisby’s nonsexual violations leading to his 2018 censure could have involved various types of of behaviors, Hayes said. Conduct unbecoming of a priest can potentially be unrelated to physical contact, for instance, such as borrowing from a parishioner to pay off a gambling debt.
What’s more, if Fisher had invited anyone victimized by Lisby to come forward before receiving additional evidence or credible allegations, doing so might have unfairly impugned the reputation of a priest, according to Hayes. In any Title IV situation, investigators must be careful not to solicit, for instance, sexual misconduct accounts when a priest hasn’t been accused of any such thing.
“That might falsely suggest that the subject has committed sexual misconduct when in fact that hasn’t happened at all and there’s no evidence of it,” Hayes said. “Investigators need to be careful not to create a false narrative.”
Not everyone agrees with that approach. Boston attorney Carmen Durso has represented dozens of clergy sexual abuse victims, most of whom have claims against Roman Catholic priests. He said inappropriate and unbecoming behavior in the case of Lisby likely involved some kind of pre-sexual boundary violation because “I don’t know what else it could be.”
He said bishops considering misconduct allegations against priests have a duty to discover if more victims have experiences to share. Otherwise dangers posed by rogue priests can too often be left at large and unchecked. He said Fisher should have called for victims to come forward when he learned that Lisby had had an inappropriate relationship, even though it was nonsexual and involved an adult.
“The idea that a bishop would not reach out and find out if there are other victims who have been harmed is just incomprehensible,” Durso said. “There is no excuse for a religious organization that claims to have moral principles to shrink from the duty of finding out what he’s done and doing the right thing.”
Whether or not the investigation was properly framed, it led to censure in which Lisby agreed to a two-year suspension. But the Holyoke School District never learned about Lisby’s ecclesiastical censure because it never asked about his experience or standing in the church.
Like the diocese, the Holyoke School District investigated Lisby only within a narrow set of parameters. It ran state and federal background checks to see if Lisby had a criminal history, according to District spokesperson Judy Taylor. For employment history, the District queried only schools, not churches.
“We also contacted prior employers of Mr. Lisby where he worked directly with children in school settings,” Taylor said via email. “We reached out to both previous employers that are educational institutions as well as the local teaching program that Mr. Lisby was vetted through. We did not reach out to All Saints Church or to the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts as we did not know that Mr. Lisby had been removed from his position as a Worcester rector.”
Because the employment background check omitted church sources, the District had no context for Lisby’s disclosure that he was a former priest. If someone from the District had contacted Fisher, he would have been obliged to disclose if a basis existed for regarding Lisby as a risk to children, according to Durso. But Fisher insists he harbored no such suspicions prior to Lisby’s arrest.
The district “didn’t talk to me,” Fisher said. “I would have been honest with them. I didn’t have anything to report regarding children.”
At this point, the book on Lisby is far from closed. The Hampden County District Attorney could still bring charges of sexual abuse if a grand jury were to indict him. More accusations could potentially be passed along to law enforcement if any should surface in the current Title IV proceeding, which Fisher launched in February to have Lisby defrocked, or permanently removed from ordained ministry. The Holyoke School District has received no reports of Lisby harming any children during his brief tenure as a teacher, according to Taylor.
Back at Morgan Elementary, parents and grandparents line up at 3:30 to pick up their kids. They’re used to dealing with adversity in this part of Holyoke, where rundown commercial buildings are guarded by chain link fencing, barbed wire and Rottweilers. To help protect their kids, some hope schools and churches will be more thorough in years ahead.
“You already were checking him in your church, so why did you let him out?” said DeJesus, the grandmother of four at Morgan Elementary. “I understand that you didn’t know what he was doing, but you stopped in the middle of an investigation. That’s kind of crazy.”