May 23, 2019

Tragedy in Waterville

The tragedy in Waterville, in which four nuns were attacked by a man with a history of mental-health problems, spread sorrow and fear throughout Maine. At this point, however, it would be a mistake to draw conclusions about this terrible, violent act and the state’s mental-health system.

Melodie Peet, commissioner of the Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, announced Monday that the department had already begun examining “the clinical history of the alleged perpetrator and the events leading up to the incident, including the state’s involvement with him, to evaluate any gaps, weak points or potential areas of improvement in the system.” Before more is known about the case, she cautioned, the news media and the public should refrain from deciding that a failure in the state’s mental-health services had occurred.

Fair enough. But the awful nature of the crime Mark Bechard is accused of committing deserves a public inquiry. Privacy laws prevent the state from discussing specifics of individual cases, but they are not designed to allow state officials to hide wrongdoing. Commissioner Peet has a responsibility to step forward with the results of her review, to identify shortcomings in the system and to describe what steps she intends to take to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

Bechard reportedly lived in a group home before moving into an apartment by himself. The apartment was about a mile from the Servants of the Blessed Sacrament convent, where he walked the night of the attack. Mental-health advocates have accused the state of failing to live up to a court order that requires it to provide housing and treatment for the mentally ill. If true in this case, Maine would have only the lengthy debates about saving money in mental-health care to balance against the lost lives of the nuns.

That is why Commissioner Peet must offer a detailed explanation of the role the state played in this tragedy. That is why the public must know what happened in Bechard’s treatment, and why.

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