NEW YORK – The head of a Massachusetts parish soup kitchen was placed on administrative leave on March 11 after allegations were made to the diocese that for years he has coerced vulnerable women who use the soup kitchen’s services into sex.

The complaint was made against Billy Riley, who has been the food for the poor coordinator for St. John’s Catholic Church in the Diocese of Worcester since 2013. A spokesperson for the diocese confirmed that the complaint was made on March 11.

“The coordinator is being placed on administrative leave and, given the seriousness of the allegations, an independent third-party investigator will be retained for a thorough investigation about this complaint,” Ray Delisle, the Diocese of Worcester chancellor and director of communications told Crux on March 11.

Bishop Robert McManus of Worcester declined to comment on the allegations citing that the complaint was recently received. Father John Madden, pastor of St. John’s, declined to comment on the allegations, instead pointing to the diocese’s statement.

Riley couldn’t be reached by Crux for comment.

Nicole Bell, the CEO of Living in Freedom Together – an organization in Worcester that supports women leaving prostitution and works to end the sex trade – made the March 11 complaint to the diocese’s victim assistance coordinator. Bell, who got out of prostitution herself eight years ago, detailed her experiences with Riley to Crux in February.

Bell said she first met Riley through the soup kitchen in 2011, at which time she was homeless. She alleges that he “took an interest in her” and offered to let her shower at his house.

“I did that because I’m experiencing homelessness. I have nothing,” Bell said. “And then that leads to some kind of exchange of sexual activity for his assistance and so eventually it felt like if I didn’t do what he was requesting of me that I wouldn’t be able to access the soup kitchen.”

Bell said this continued through 2014, and in those three years she was at Riley’s home at least five times for these types of exchanges. She also recalled an instance in November 2014 where she planned to participate in a St. John’s fundraiser where they give away free boots to the homeless until Billy pulled her aside and said he would take her to get new boots himself.

Bell said she tried to turn down the offer for him to buy her boots, but he persisted.

“I will say I understand that I’m an adult, but you have to understand that I’m experiencing homelessness. I had no income, no place to access food. I didn’t have anything in my life,” Bell explained. “So, I met him after the soup kitchen closed and he took me to Marshalls to buy me a pair of boots and I had to give him [oral sex] for those boots.”

Crux spoke with another woman in February – who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation from Riley – who had similar experiences with Riley from 2014 until August 2021 when she became sober.

The woman said that she was a prostitute in active addiction when she met Riley. She said at the time they met she was sick with opiate withdrawal and needed money. He offered to help “by letting me go on a date with him,” she said.

The woman explained that she would go to the soup kitchen on a daily basis to eat, and while there, she and Riley set up a time to meet at the soup kitchen after he finished work. When that time came, she said, they would drive to his apartment.

“I would take a shower and then he would pay me about $80 to have oral sex with him and I would use that money to go get high afterwards,” the woman explained. “He would just make life a little easier for me. At the time I really didn’t think I was being preyed upon, but now that I’m sober, I see that he was using me for his own needs.”

The woman said she never went to the parish, diocese or law enforcement about the interactions.

“I didn’t go to the authorities or anything because he was really important to my survival needs when I was using so I didn’t want to get him in trouble,” the woman said. “Now it’s definitely different. I have that clarity that it was wrong on his end, monopolizing on the fact that I’m a female in a bad position and I think he took full advantage of my situation.”

Bell said that Riley “controls access to one of the only places you can access food in our community,” which is why she never came forward.

Riley has become a well-known figure in Worcester – appearing in news articles and being honored by the Worcester Red Sox, the local minor league baseball team – for his work at the soup kitchen. He took over as food for the poor coordinator in 2013 when the soup kitchen moved from St. John’s lower church to an old building abutting St. John’s property to meet a growing need. The soup kitchen’s new home was dedicated on May 13, 2013, as the St. Francis Xavier Center.

Bell also noted she would have come forward to the diocese sooner but she wasn’t aware the reporting process was available. The diocese’s website has information on how to report abuse under the “healing and prevention” sub-category within the “Departments” tab. However, Bell said she never saw the information physically posted anywhere, which she doesn’t understand.

“I said to [victim assistance coordinator Judith Audette] when I called the diocese: How would I even know that this process is available?,” Bell said. “So, it’s great that this process is available, but when you don’t make it known to anybody how would they even know to utilize that?”

Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg