AVON - One word comes to mind when Mark Rowe recalls Joseph Larrabee, a former priest who’s now the subject of multiple lawsuits alleging the sexual abuse of children.
“I guess the word is charismatic,” said Rowe, the latest to file suit against Larrabee. “Funny guy. There wasn’t anybody that didn’t like him - adults, kids. He was very likable.”
So when Larrabee, an associate pastor at the St. Agnes parish, invited Rowe and some of his classmates over for a sleepover at the rectory one summer in the early 1980s when Rowe was in his early teenage years, Rowe didn’t think much of it.
“Everybody had sleeping bags on the floor – he did as well. He was sleeping next to me. He reached into my bag and grabbed my genitals,” said Rowe, speaking during a phone interview last week. “After I don’t how long it was - if I said 30 seconds or a minute I’d be guessing – I knew it wasn’t right so I told him to stop. He said ‘Are you sure?’ I said ‘Yup.’”
Rowe, who graduated from Avon High School in 1984 and is now 54 years old, doesn’t think he ever went back to the rectory, though he can’t remember for sure.
“It’s really vague in my mind,” he said. “The one time just stands out because of what happened. I want to say it was the only time I’d gone there. I know there were other sleepovers that other kids went to at other times.”
Regardless, Rowe saw little of Larrabee from then on. A couple of years after the sleepover, Larrabee was transferred to a different parish.
The now former priest’s sexual assault of Rowe is outlined in a lawsuit filed earlier this month in Livingston County Supreme Court. It is, at least, the sixth such lawsuit filed against Larrabee under New York’s Child Victims Act. Three were filed in August 2019, according to reporting from Rochester’s Democrat and Chronicle. To read past D&C coverage of Larrabee, click here.
As the County News previously reported, two more filed in early February accuse Larrabee of sexually abusing two teenagers in the St. Agnes rectory at least 19 times between 1982 and 1984. Those suits are pending. To read past County News coverage of Larrabee and these two suits, click here.
Larrabee was voluntarily laicized, or gave up his priesthood, at some point after 2002, according to the Diocese of Rochester. According to recent court filings, he lives in Saratoga County.
After the assault
The morning after, Rowe told a friend who’d gone with him to the sleepover what Larrabee had done, but he didn’t believe him. Rowe’s parents did believe him, however.
“At first you don’t want to think that something like that would happen to your child and you know your child well enough to know that he is telling the truth,” said Rowe’s mother, Wanda, during a phone interview last week. “We believed him but we, unfortunately, did not do anything about it.”
Wanda Rowe said she regrets her and her husband’s inaction but felt at the time that, if she’d confronted the priest or gone public with an accusation, she and her family would have been judged by the Avon community.
“It’s embarrassing when you start finger-pointing, regardless of who the perpetrator is, not only to yourself but to the community around you,” she said. “...you don’t want people to know that, you don’t want people to think badly of you because that happened to your child. That’s embarrassing – at least it is to me.”
Rowe’s father, Jerry, was a police officer in Avon at the time of his son’s assault. Jerry Rowe said he didn’t think any good would have come of confronting Larrabee or making the church aware of the priest’s actions.
“Why would I really want to do that,” he said. “What am I going to find out? He’s (Larrabee) going to deny it. I’m not going to get into that.”
After Larrabee had invited his son to the sleepover, Jerry said he warned his son that some priests had a reputation for being inclined to sexually abuse children and told him to “be on guard” during the sleepover in case the priest tried anything.
A lifelong resident of Avon, Jerry Rowe said he started hearing talk about priests sexually abusing children in the 1940s, when he was in high school.
“You hear about it growing up and it’s beared out true. Whether it was true or not when I was hearing about it, it put me on guard,” he said. “... I think my warning was justified.”
Bishop’s deposition sheds light
Recent statements by Matthew Clark, the former Bishop of the Rochester Diocese, show he was aware of complaints that Larrabee had had “inappropriate sexual relations with minors” around the time Rowe said the former priest assaulted him in the early 1980s.
Clark made the statements in March during a deposition given as part of the Diocese of Rochester’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy case. Clark suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease.
In response to a question of when he became aware of the complaints, Clark said “it was very soon after” he began his tenure as Bishop in 1979.
After becoming aware of the complaints, Clark said he didn’t believe Larrabee was given any further assignments in the Diocese.
“He rather just departed into the night, so to speak,” said Clark.
Clark’s questioner during the deposition, William Gordon, an attorney with the Law Offices of Mitchell Garabedian, pressed the former bishop on Larrabee’s subsequent assignments within the Diocese.
“Was it your understanding… during the rest of your tenure at the Diocese of Rochester after he disappeared for a while, he was never assigned to a position as a priest within the Diocese of Rochester,” Gordon asked Clark.
“That’s correct,” Clark replied.
This assertion appears inconsistent with previous reporting from the County News, the D&C and others that show Larrabee held posts at other parishes following his brief stints at St. Agnes in Avon and St. Mary’s Church of Dansville.
Mark Rowe said he first learned of other allegations against Larrabee when he saw a news article posted on the “You Know You Grew Up in Avon NY, when you remember:” Facebook page.
“A conversation started on that” Facebook page, Rowe recalled. “Someone said ‘I hope this isn’t true about Father Larrabee.’ I was like ‘Oh, I’m sorry to inform you it is true.’ ”
Rowe credited a viewing of the movie “Spotlight,” which chronicles The Boston Globe’s investigation of and series of articles on the Boston Diocese’s shuffling of abusive priests among different parishes, with helping him fully appreciate how rampant the issue was.
Rowe said he hopes by filing suit, victims of Larrabee and other priests choose to come forward. If enough people continue to speak out, Rowe’s hopeful the Catholic Church will take the issue of abusive priests more seriously so that fewer children are sexually abused in the future.
“It’s not just the individuals they’re shuffling around – they’re allowing this to happen by not taking proper steps,” he said. “It’s almost like they’re hypocrites because they’re supposed to take care of the people in their congregations and not let them get hurt... that wasn’t what they were doing. I really feel bad for people that it hurt.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Rowe doesn’t count himself among that number. He said he suffered no lasting, ill effects as a results of his assault. He even prays for Larrabee, and hopes he’s been able to turn his life around.
“I pray for that guy – everyone deserves a first, second, third, fourth, fifth chance to become a better person,” he said. “I’ve made mistakes in my life and I’ve been given chances. How is he any different?”