Havre Daily News
Family members and friends have spoken out in support of a deceased Fort Belknap priest who was named in a lawsuit earlier this month, alleging that he sexually abused a young parishioner in Alaska in the late 1960s.
They say they are outraged that the allegations have been made against the Rev. Bernard Francis McMeel, adding that they cannot believe the man affectionately known as “Father Barney” could do any wrong.
McMeel's niece, Marcia Kostas of Great Falls, said in a telephone interview Friday that she had known McMeel since childhood and cannot believe for a moment that he harmed children in his care.
“We will do anything to clear his name,” Kostas said. “We don't believe for a minute the allegations against him.
“This has touched every person in my family,” she added.
The lawsuit, filed by Anchorage law firm Cooke, Roosa & Valcarce on behalf of an unnamed victim, alleges that McMeel and another Jesuit priest, now retired and living in Hungary, sexually molested the man when he was between the ages of 4 and 7.
The lawsuit, filed in state court in Bethel, Alaska, also names the Fairbanks Diocese and the Oregon and Alaska provinces of the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits.
“There is nothing negative I can say about him,” said Sister Laura Fucito, who works on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. Fucito served with McMeel during his tenure there from 1979 to his death in 1994. “He had only shown excellent conduct at all times. There was never a complaint against him. He was a genuine person.”
Fucito described McMeel as wholesome, humble and intelligent.
She said the entire Catholic community at the reservation has been devastated by news of the lawsuit. Young adults who knew McMeel as children have been particularly shaken, she said.
“They were appalled by this accusation,” shesaid. “If he was a pedophile - you don't molest kids at a certain time and then go somewhere else and be completely clean.”
If there had been any suspicion that McMeel was a child molester, those at Fort Belknap would have found out long ago through the “moccasin vine,” said writer Jessie James-Hawley of Fort Belknap. James-Hawley wrote several articles about McMeel, including a piece for the Harlem News after his funeral.
“This is like a big family at Fort Belknap,” she said. “If there had been anything - anything - even a hint, we would have known.
“There has not been anyone to come forward to say anything derogatory about the father,” she added.
“I know there are some outstanding people in this world who have been discovered to be pedophiles,” she said. “I don't think the father is one of them. I just know it in my heart.”
Kostas said there has been an outpouring of support for McMeel, who was born in Great Falls, since information about the lawsuit became public. She received more than 100 calls, she said.
The callers “were outraged,” Kostas said, “extremely upset that there could be these accusations against him.”
The suit claims that the church reassigned McMeel to St. Paul's Mission in Hays in 1978 because the Jesuits learned he had molested a child. Kostas and others said that claim is untrue. McMeel spent time at Fort Belknap in 1978 before moving back to Alaska. When Fort Belknap needed a new priest, the parish requested McMeel, and he returned to Hays in 1979, where he served until his death, they said.
“He was asked to come,” Fucito said.
Kostas fondly remembers McMeel as the uncle who baptized her two children and presided at the wedding of one of her nieces. McMeel was one of six children and was extremely close to her mother, Kostas said.
“He was around my two young children all of the time,” she said. “I knew Bernie up until the time that he died. He was a wonderful, wonderful man. I don't think you could find anybody here that would say anything different about him.”
Kostas said about 500 people attended McMeel's funeral at Fort Belknap. According to James-Hawley, the ceremony was a colorful celebration of a well-loved man. Speakers said McMeel respected the spirituality of American Indians and knew there was little difference between holy water and sweetgrass.
A few years after his death, a statue of St. Francis was dedicated to McMeel at the Hays church.
Another one of McMeel's nieces said he was incapable of harming another person.
“He was truly a kind and compassionate man,” Patty Edwards said in an e-mail from Birmingham, Mich.
“Based on my experience as a community social worker I do not believe Barney could have achieved such universal respect and admiration from an entire community had he led the insidious double life of a pedophile that the lawyers allege,” she added.
James-Hawley said she disagreed with the law firm's decision to run ads in the Havre Daily News seeking information about McMeel from other potential victims.
“I don't like the way this law firm handled this,” she said. “Everybody is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty.”
Attorney Ken Roosa said the lawyers have received some calls from Montana regarding McMeel. He said some calls were from people who were upset that McMeel had been allowed to serve at Fort Belknap after allegedly being accused of abuse. Other calls were in support of McMeel.
Those callers “never saw him do anything objectionable,” Roosa said.
“I don't believe that we had any calls from victims,” he added.