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Nuns taught compassion after convent rampage

Maine courts, police more aware of needs of the mentally ill

Thursday, January 26, 2006; Posted: 12:25 p.m. EST (17:25 GMT)

WATERVILLE, Maine (AP) -- Nearly a decade ago, a mentally ill man who dreamed of becoming a Catholic priest burst through the doors of the chapel of Servants of the Blessed Sacrament.

Mark Bechard, who had regularly attended services there, went on a rampage, stabbing and stomping elderly nuns. Two of them were killed and two others injured, including one left in a coma.

"While it's in our past now, it's still very much on our minds," Police Chief John Morris said ahead of the 10th anniversary Friday. "The sights we saw will never be forgotten."


Gaps exposed
Bechard, who was in his late 30s at the time of the attack, remains in the state psychiatric hospital in Augusta. He was suffering from schizo-affective disorder and had been off his medication for several days.

A review in the months after the attacks found glaring weaknesses in the local crisis response system. His parents knew the day of the attacks that Bechard was in distress, but were unable to reach mental health officials.

The state has worked since the attacks to fill cracks in the mental health system.

"We have established more peer support and enhanced crisis services," said Brenda Harvey, acting commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services. "We have worked with communities, like the nuns in Waterville, to enhance our victim support and notification efforts and improve care in our state hospital."


Changes in system
In Waterville, crisis intervention workers dubbed the "midnight team" travel nightly with local police, Morris said. He said that "without a doubt" counselors have defused other potential flashpoints and saved lives in the city of 15,000.

The case also brought about changes in the way Maine courts look at cases involving mentally ill people, said Michaela Murphy, who was Bechard's attorney during his trial.

"It would have been inconceivable before this case for the state to come in and say this is a mentally ill man, not a sociopath," said Murphy. "I still believe the sisters made that possible because of what they testified about (Bechard's) dramatic change in behavior and their compassion for him."

That compassion was demonstrated a year after the nightmarish scene, when the nuns joined with Bechard's parents to pray for healing.

Also present in the chapel were family and friends of the slain nuns, Mother Superior Edna Mary Cardozo, 68, and Sister Marie Julien Fortin, 67.

The events forged a closer relationship between the police and the nuns, who have bolstered security at their chapel and convent. The state hospital notifies them when Bechard, with security escorts, is allowed to leave the site.


Nuns show compassion
But the nuns were not frightened into closing their services, said Sister Kathryn Kelm, substitute superior at the convent.

In fact, their ministry has grown over the years as people who initially sought to express their sympathies now pray with the nuns. Several others have volunteered their time working in the convent.

The sisters have marked each anniversary with a special Mass in which prayers are offered for those who lost their lives, and this year's will be no different, Kelm said. As in past years, Bechard's parents, Julian and Diane Bechard, are expected to attend.

Sister Patricia Ann Keane, who survived after being beaten with her cane and a religious statue, has since died. Sister Mary Anna DiGiacomo, the other nun who was attacked, lives at the convent but has no recollection of the event, Kelm said.

While the nuns have a heightened sense of security, they harbor no ill feelings against Bechard, said Kelm, adding that "he's certainly deserving of our prayers."

"Our stance is still forgiveness. We stand by that," she said.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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