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NEW YORK – A woman who earlier this year accused a Diocese of Worcester parish soup kitchen director of coercing her and other vulnerable women into sex has sued the now-former director for his alleged actions, as well as diocesan leadership for alleged failure to act on the complaint in a timely manner.
“This complaint reflects the unlawful actions of the defendants relating to their tortious activity and their duty of care extended to Bell and other similarly situated individuals,” reads the complaint, filed on December 13 in Worcester Superior Court in Massachusetts.
“The defendants engaged in an ongoing course of conduct, acting in concert, to abuse and mistreat [plaintiff Nicole] Bell, and others, then conspired to shield themselves from liability,” it continues. “Based on the foregoing and the allegations that follow, Bell seeks compensatory and punitive damages.”
Bell detailed her allegations against the former St. John’s Catholic Church food for the poor coordinator, William Riley, to Crux in February, before filing a formal complaint to the Diocese of Worcester’s victim assistance coordinator in March. As a result of the complaint, Riley was placed on administrative leave pending a diocesan investigation led by a third party.
That report was published in July, and Riley subsequently resigned from his role.
The defendants in the lawsuit are the Diocese of Worcester and Bishop Robert McManus, St. John’s Catholic Church and its pastor Father John Madden, and Riley. The lawsuit identifies eight causes of action against all defendants, including two separate counts of negligence, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, civil liability of sex trafficking and defamation.
Bell’s attorney, Beth Keeley, told Crux in a Dec. 20 email that “it became incumbent to bring this lawsuit to highlight the issues the Worcester Diocese continued to fail to address.”
“The goal continues to be bringing forward accountability and understanding,” she said.
Ray Delisle, spokesman for the diocese, declined a Crux request for comment, citing that the diocese does not comment on active lawsuits. It was first reported by the Worcester Telegram and Gazette.
Bell’s allegations against Riley go back to the early 2010s. She alleges that from 2011-2014, while she was homeless and experiencing substance abuse, Riley would take advantage of his position as head of the soup kitchen to coerce vulnerable women into sex.
Bell is currently the CEO of Living in Freedom Together, an organization in Worcester that supports women leaving prostitution and works to end the sex trade.
Another woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity citing fear of retaliation, detailed similar experiences to Crux in March with Riley from 2014 until August 2021, when she became sober.
There were a total of three complaints against Riley in the diocese’s report on the investigation into Riley’s conduct. The report runs to 72 pages, and because it’s heavily redacted it’s unclear what it found. It did, though, find claims against Madden unwarranted.
The allegations against Madden were that he was aware of, or complicit in, the alleged conduct of Riley, that he was engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct himself with vulnerable women who stayed in the parish’s sober house, and that he engaged in witness manipulation by paying money for the benefit of an individual who could be involved in the investigation.
Related to Madden, the lawsuit alleges that “Riley’s conduct was sanctioned by the daily presence and supervision of Madden, who allowed Riley to operate the Food Program in this way and refused to act, even when Madden was informed of Riley’s conduct.”
It also alleges that Madden’s attorneys sent a cease-and-desist letter to Bell after the diocesan report was released in July “alleging she made false and baseless accusations,” as a means to “threaten and intimidate” Bell and others from moving forward with their claims.
Related to McManus, the lawsuit alleges that he, in addition to Madden, “had direct knowledge” of Bell’s allegations of abuse in January 2022 and “did not act to address or root out the allegations,” although the formal complaint to the diocese about Riley’s conduct wasn’t made until March.
The lawsuit also takes issue with the diocese’s choice for an independent investigator, Robert Hennigan, saying his diocesan connections make clear he wasn’t an “impartial third party.”
“Upon receiving information regarding the abuse of Bell, along with other similar complaints, the Diocese of Worcester and the Bishop had a duty to examine and fully investigate,” the lawsuit claims. “The defendants failed to act.”
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg