Apr. 16—For 11-year-old Melissa Kearns, the rectory beside St. John Catholic Church in Bangor was a refuge from a turbulent family life as one of seven children.
She'd go there after school to read books that visiting Jesuits and nuns selected for her. She filled ice buckets for their cocktails and cleared their dinner table. She reveled in their magazines featuring missionaries' adventures abroad.
"It was an escape," Kearns said. "It was a happy place where I felt seen and kind of appreciated."
As Kearns grew older, the Catholic church lost some of its magic for her. But each time she drifted away, she returned.
After struggling in New York with her mental health and a rocky engagement, Kearns returned to her hometown and St. John's in 2018, thinking she might want to be a chaplain.
That's when she met Anthony Cipolle, a newly ordained priest named the parochial vicar of her home parish the year before. The priest, who had taken a vow of celibacy, would go on, she said, to coerce her into a sexual relationship, abuse her trust, take advantage of her vulnerability and destroy her sense of safety in her church. And she would come to believe that she probably was not the only person he'd treated in this way.
Cipolle was removed from the priesthood in Maine three years ago over his behavior with another woman, who was shot to death by her estranged husband's brother. He is now a resident chaplain at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Kearns said she wanted to tell her story to the Press Herald because she remains concerned that Cipolle could be a danger to others who are vulnerable, as she was when she met him. She said she also worries that, while he can't be a priest in Maine, he may not yet be barred from being a priest elsewhere.
Cipolle, who spoke at length to the newspaper in phone conversations, would not discuss whether he had a physical relationship with Kearns, but expressed shock at her concern that he might put others at risk.
The Portland Press Herald reviewed dozens of documents that support details of Kearns' claims, including texts between her and Cipolle and an email from a representative of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland that acknowledged that Kearns was "sexually, emotionally and psychologically abused by Cipolle."
Those documents and interviews with several people who said Kearns described her experiences with Cipolle as they were happening tell the story of a Catholic priest who not only broke his vows but egregiously violated church standards of conduct.
The diocese's code of ethics states that "church personnel will not physically, sexually, or emotionally abuse anyone," and "will strive to conduct themselves in a professional and respectful manner in both church and work environments, avoiding any flagrant or public misconduct."
'WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE ME TO DO?'
Cipolle, who was 53 when Kearns met him, was a latecomer to the priesthood. Like her, he had drifted away and then come back to the church. He'd had a previous life. Originally from Arlington, Massachusetts, he had been married, had a son and grandkids. He spoke vaguely about a "wild" past, about how he had once "lived like a rock star." But he also shared qualities of the church leaders she had looked up to in childhood. A graduate of Boston College, Cipolle was well-read and had studied theologians she admired.
Before they met, Cipolle had been involved in a tragedy — the killing of Renee Henneberry Clark, a parishioner shot to death by her brother-in-law, who lived in an apartment next to hers. Cipolle had been close to Henneberry Clark, and had gotten into a physical fight with her brother-in-law outside the apartment building just about two hours before Philip Clark shot her 10 times. Clark had confessed to the killing.
Kearns didn't know the details, but had the impression that Cipolle had been a hero.
A different story of Cipolle's role emerged at Clark's trial the following year, of a priest who overstepped his role in numerous ways: by helping Henneberry Clark leave her husband, by getting in a brawl with her brother-in-law, by exacerbating rather than trying to calm the conflict between the victim and her killer.
"The role of Anthony Cipolle in this tragedy, I don't think can be overstated," Superior Court Justice William Stokes said after Clark was sentenced to 43 years for murder.
In 2020, after investigating Cipolle's behavior, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland expelled him.
But by then, Kearns said, Cipolle had done his damage to her. She claims he had twisted the church's tenets to get her to have sex with him, further eroding her already fragile mental health.
Kearns in late 2022 reached a settlement with the diocese for an undisclosed amount, though it did not involve a public acknowledgment of her story.
Cipolle told the Press Herald that Henneberry Clark had been his parishioner, but that he didn't consider Kearns to be one since she had another parish in New York. He said any pain he caused Kearns was the result of miscommunicating his intentions, and that he considered her a friend who helped him through his grief at the loss of Henneberry Clark, not someone he was counseling.
He also said he no longer wanted to be a priest. But he said he had trained hard to help people. Kearns' concern about his work now upset him.
"I spent all this time, money and energy trying to learn how to help people," he said. "You think I'm going to go out and try to hurt someone? Or that I'm not competent at what I'm doing? My grade point average was 3.74."
The Press Herald asked Vanderbilt University Medical Center if staff knew Cipolle's background, including his expulsion from the diocese in Maine, before he was hired. In an email, a spokesperson said the medical center could not comment on personnel matters.
The Press Herald repeatedly asked in phone messages and emails to speak with Bishop Robert Deeley and other leaders of the diocese about Cipolle's entry into the priesthood, his firing, his status in the church and his current employment. The diocese did not respond.
Kearns said she wants the church to acknowledge fault in hiring Cipolle.
Her attorney, Jessica Arbour, said the diocese said it would petition the Vatican for Cipolle's removal from the priesthood, but she does not know the petition's status.
'SOMEONE'S FINALLY SEEING ME'
Kearns has major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder from abuse in her childhood. Just before she met Cipolle, she had come home because she didn't feel safe alone.
She met Cipolle at church with her parents. She heard about his connection to Henneberry Clark and thought he had been the champion of a woman trying to leave an abusive husband.
When Cipolle invited Kearns to his office in the church basement to discuss helping her become a chaplain, she believed he could be her champion, too.
She felt a connection to him because of his untraditional background, which had drawn attention when he was ordained as Maine's only new priest in 2017.
He told the Press Herald at the time that he spent most of his adult life ignoring God, despite growing up with a mother who constantly prayed and a father who read him Bible stories before bed.
In their first meeting, Kearns said, Cipolle stopped her mid-sentence.
"He said, 'I'm sorry, I have to interrupt you.' ... He said, 'You look like you're in crisis to me.' ... I stopped and caught my breath," she said. "I remember, I said, 'Someone's finally seeing me.' "
Kearns quickly opened up to him.
"He said to me, 'I have a past, too. Everybody has a past,' " Kearns remembered. "It's like he was making it so easy to talk to him."
Within a few weeks, Kearns said, their relationship became physical and unhealthy.
Kearns said the priest pressured her into sex. He told her that his personal interpretation of canon law allowed priests to break the vow of celibacy. He isolated her from loved ones, she said, saying he was the only one who cared about her. She began to stay with him in the rectory, she said, and he asked her to make confession to him naked.
She introduced Cipolle to her friends and family in Maine and New York. Those who spoke with the Press Herald asked not to be identified but said the relationship between Kearns and the priest was obvious.
Kearns said Cipolle told her he'd also had sex with Henneberry Clark.
Cipolle denied this at Clark's trial. In his conversations with the Press Herald, he refused to say if he had a physical relationship with her or with Kearns, calling the questions "inappropriate."
Texts between Kearns and Cipolle suggest a sexual relationship. He texted her that he loved her. He used pet names for her, like "babydoll," and referred to times they had sex.
Cipolle did not deny to the Press Herald that there were text messages, but said he never administered the sacrament to Kearns or heard her confession.
By the end of 2018, Kearns said, she knew she had to get away from Cipolle. She went back to New York.
She had not spoken to him for a year, she said, when he testified in Clark's murder trial. That was when she realized her twisted relationship with the priest had not been unique.
'THE STORY NEEDS TO BE TOLD, YOUR HONOR'
Cipolle has given different accounts of how he met Henneberry Clark. He testified in Clark's murder trial they met around 2004, when he came to Maine seeking treatment for substance use disorder and she became his counselor.
In 2018, the two had reconnected, and a "new relationship began to bud," Cipolle said.
He also said he and she were "best friends" and had rented a house together.
Henneberry Clark was missing for almost two days when police found her body and Philip Clark confessed.
The judge ordered Cipolle to testify. Against the advice of his appointed attorneys, he answered questions in detail.
"The story needs to be told, your honor," Cipolle said.
Philip Clark's attorneys grilled Cipolle on his role in encouraging Henneberry Clark to separate from her husband. They got him to say under oath that he had helped her move "marital assets" from her former home with Frank Clark, including construction equipment and tools belonging to her brother-in-law, which Philip Clark had demanded she give back on the night that he shot her.
Cipolle said he smelled alcohol on Clark's breath before they fought — and that Clark spat at him.
"I think I spat back at him, and I said, 'Don't mistake my collar for weakness.' ... So then he punched me, and then I defended myself," Cipolle said.
He confirmed that he had punched Clark and probably kicked him.
At Clark's sentencing, Justice William Stokes said Cipolle had fanned the flames.
"He certainly did not help the situation at all, at least from my point of view," Stokes said. "Cipolle clearly inserted himself into this whole situation."
Cipolle told the Press Herald he had helped Henneberry Clark when the justice system didn't.
"I'm just saying what her daughter said to me — that I was the only one who was helping her," he said. "Those people didn't help her."
'THE ONLY THING THAT MADE SENSE'
When Kearns returned to New York in late 2018, she told Cipolle she needed space. By then, he was on a voluntary leave of absence from the Maine diocese.
On Christmas Day, Cipolle drove to Kearns' apartment. He says he was there about a week. Kearns said it was closer to two.
Cipolle refused to leave, Kearns said, though she repeatedly asked him to go.
One friend said Kearns told her and her husband that she couldn't get Cipolle to leave, but that when they offered to speak to him, Kearns said no.
Kearns said she was exhausted the last time she asked Cipolle to leave.
"It was like 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning," Kearns said. "He's really angry, and he's yelling at me. He said, 'Nobody cares about you. I'm the only one that cares about you. You should kill yourself.' At that point in time, it was the only thing that made sense."
On her bedside table were pills and a bottle of bourbon, she said. She downed everything, plus bleach, and lost consciousness.
She awoke to find police and emergency responders in her apartment, her doorman standing by crying. Cipolle was gone, she said. She found out later that a friend had called 911.
Cipolle said he couldn't remember when he left, but that it wasn't after her suicide attempt. He denied suggesting Kearns kill herself.
"If someone tried killing themselves, I'm going to try and stop them, it doesn't matter who it is," he said.
'HOW COULD YOU GUYS HAVE HIRED HIM?'
Eleven months later, Kearns said, she watched news coverage of Cipolle's trial testimony and realized he was a danger. She called the diocese and connected with Mike Magalski, director of the chancery's Office of Professional Standards, whose number she'd seen at the bottom of news stories after Clark was sentenced in January 2020.
Kearns said she spoke with Magalski for hours and told him her whole story. Magalski assured her that Cipolle would no longer serve as a priest.
"I did ask Mike, over and over, 'How could you guys have hired him?' " Kearns said.
Magalski did not respond to multiple requests from the Press Herald to discuss these meetings.
Eventually, Kearns said, she heard from a diocesan employee who connected her to a private therapist who works for the church. Kearns said the therapist only caused her more distress.
In May 2020, the diocese announced that Cipolle's days as a Maine priest were over.
Deeley said in a statement first read at St. John's that a church investigation had found that Cipolle had "abused his position as a member of the clergy, violated the Diocese of Portland's Code of Ethics, and attempted to deceive investigators."
Cipolle told the Press Herald that he had successfully appealed the diocese's decision. He said he is trying to negotiate a voluntary resignation from the diocese and won't give up until he is compensated for his loss of housing and health insurance.
"I gave everything up in my life and laid down on the Cathedral floor to give up my life, to live my life as a priest," Cipolle said. "And then the church abandoned me. ... I don't want to be left standing with no insurance until I can retool and get another job. And I can't get another job with that (expletive) in the newspaper about me."
Cipolle told the Press Herald he still talks to people he offered spiritual direction. One, Sylvia Rush, said Cipolle made the church more welcoming for her and her husband after their house burned down and her brother-in-law died.
In a "moment of desperation," Rush called the parish — and Cipolle called back.
He had "lived life," making him easier to relate to than other priests, she said.
"He probably shouldn't have fought with somebody," Rush said, but added, "I don't think ... he should've been taken out. I think there was other disciplinary action that could've been done."
When the diocese told Kearns of its plan to submit a petition to the Vatican to laicize Cipolle, stripping him of his priestly status, she hoped her story would play a big part in making that happen. She initially hired Arbour around this time, both to help with the tribunal process and to hold the church accountable as Cipolle's employer through legal action.
In November 2020, Sister Rita-Mae Bissonnette, who was serving as her contact at the diocese, emailed Kearns to discuss the tribunal and Kearns' fears about it.
"The Tribunal knows that you have been sexually, emotionally and psychologically abused by Cipolle," Bissonnette wrote.
Kearns was worried that if she testified before the tribunal, Cipolle would find out where she was.
Bissonnette said in an email that the diocese didn't intend to share her personal information with Cipolle — but could do nothing to keep her safe except suggest she file a protection order with local police.
"Melissa, I know you are scared and I know this is very hard on you but you are overthinking it which is only making it worse on you," Bissonnette wrote.
In May 2021, the diocese informed Kearns it no longer needed her testimony in its effort, her lawyer said.
Kearns now believes the church already had enough on Cipolle without her case.
When she first approached the diocese, she said, she thought she was doing a public service.
"It was very naive on my part," she said. "I really thought I was alerting them of something they didn't know."
She said she continues to look for ways to warn people about him, as she believes the diocese should do.
"They had put the fox in the henhouse," she said.