PORTLAND, Maine — A 2005 letter from a retired priest to an official at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland shows that Maine’s bishop knew in 1956 that a priest was sexually abusing boys at a Bangor church, according to an advocate for victims and an attorney.

The late Bishop Daniel J. Feeney knew that the Rev. James Vallely , now deceased, abused children at St. John Catholic Church in Bangor before 1956, according to Robert M. Hoatson, president of Road to Recovery Inc., a New Jersey-based nonprofit charity that assists victims of sexual abuse and their families.

The handwritten letter, dated July 20, 2005, was written on stationery for St. Mary’s School in Bath. It was signed by the Rev. Richard P. Rice and is addressed to “Marc.”

Marc is believed to be the Rev. Marc Caron, who was co-chancellor of the diocese in 2005, according to Hoatson. Rice is retired but continues to say Mass in All Saints Parish, which includes churches in Bath and the Boothbay Peninsula, according to information posted on the parish website.

Efforts to reach Rice on Monday night were unsuccessful.

The letter references a conversation Rice says he had with the Rev. Richard Harvey, who died in January 2005. Harvey served at St. John’s from 1951 until 1967, according to a previously published report. News of Vallely’s alleged abuse became public in 1993, according to the letter. Rice wrote that his conversation with Harvey occurred “sometime later.”

Rice said in the letter that Harvey told him of a conversation he had with Feeney about Vallely’s alleged abuse of children but did not specify a date when the conversation with the bishop took place.

“‘Jim [Vallely] is in denial,’” Harvey is quoted as saying in the letter. “He then paused and finally said, “… there were 1, 2, 3, 4, no, 5 boys who had confided to [Harvey] of their abuse at St. John’s. He then told me, when Bishop Feeney arrived for confirmation, [Harvey] asked him to walk with him on York St. and told him about this. Within a very brief time, Jim Vallely was transferred. I do not know the years, but such a transfer would indicate the time.”

Vallely was transferred in 1956 to St. Dominic Catholic Church in Portland, attorney Mitchell Garabedian said Monday, citing diocesan records.

Rice concluded his letter with: “I write this to you so that if any young men from St. John’s at that period were in touch with the Diocese, this conversation with Dick Harvey might help validate their truthfulness and need.”

Bishop Robert P. Deeley issued a statement Tuesday morning about the letter.

“The Diocese of Portland respects the privacy and confidentiality of the victim/survivors involved in cases of sexual abuse of minors by clerics,” he said. “We maintain that privacy and confidentiality even if an individual or their legal representation chooses to discuss their situation publicly.

“As I said at the annual Day of Prayer and Penance in Portland on Feb. 27, mistakes were made in the past and the failure to deal with this problem in a more forthright manner gravely harmed those who were abused,” he continued. “We do not want to forget. Remembering keeps us vigilant in our effort to reform. We cannot change the past, but we can do everything possible to see that history does not repeat itself.”

The diocese has acknowledged there were credible abuse allegations against Vallely. He died in 1997.

The diocese said in 2005 that Vallely would have been fired if he had lived.

The information revealed in the letter would allow victims of Vallely who were sexually assaulted between 1956 and 1977 to sue the diocese under the state’s fraudulent concealment statute, Garabedian, a Boston attorney known for representing victims of clergy sexual abuse, said Monday. The attorney said that before learning of the letter’s existence, plaintiffs could not prove the diocese was aware of Vallely’s abuse until 1977.

“Why didn’t Bishop Feeney tell the public about Vallely’s abuse?” Garabedian said Monday. “The diocese’s moral obligation can’t be done away with because it was the 1950s. This is another incidence of clergy sex abuse. Abuse that was swept under the rug.”

Garabedian sued the diocese two years ago in Cumberland County Superior Court on behalf of a Massachusetts man who claimed to have been abused by Vallely between 1976 and 1979 when he was pastor of St. Michael Church in South Berwick. The attorney said the letter was provided to him by the diocese in discovery for that case, which was settled recently for “the low six figures.”

Garabedian said the victims have six years to file a lawsuit after it is revealed when the diocese learned of the abuse. In this case, the attorney said that was about a month ago.

Garabedian said he has five clients with potential lawsuits against the diocese.

Hoatson, a former priest, announced a news conference at 11 a.m. Tuesday on the sidewalk in front of the chancery, located at 510 Ocean Ave., Portland, to discuss the letter. Hoatson said that he has been in touch with Vallely’s victims but did not say whether that was through his website or if he had met with them in person.

No victims will be at the news conference, he said.

In his statement, Deeley urged anyone who may have information about any case of sexual abuse of a minor by a church representative to contact civil authorities and Michael Magalski, director of the Office of Professional Responsibility for the Diocese of Portland, at 207-321-7836 or atmichael.magalski@portlanddiocese.org.