The Diocese of Fall River and the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts have agreed to an $880,000 settlement with eight men who as children were sexually abused by a West Harwich priest, the victims’ attorney announced Monday.
The late Rev. James Nickel, who served at Holy Trinity Parish in West Harwich, sexually abused at least eight boys in the early 1970s and 1980s, some as many as 50 times over several years. Attorneys for the men suspect there are more victims.
“Father Nickel was a serial pedophile,” Mitchell Garabedian, the attorney for the victims, said at a press conference. “Once again, we have a coverup at the highest level of our religious order.”
Garabedian said that Nickel sexually abused boys in various parishes throughout the country and in the Bahamas, including Marsh Harbour, West Harwich, Illinois, New York, Washington D.C., Rhode Island, and New Hampshire. Nickel died in 2008.
One of the victims was Chris Piersall, the son of famous Red Sox star Jimmy Piersall. “I’m glad this is all over,” Piersall said Monday, calling the settlement a “three-year battle.” “I hope to put this all behind me for the rest of my life,” he said.
Garabedian said Nickel molested the boys during trips to the movies, the Olympics, the beach, skiing, and baseball games, and even sometimes on a dirt road behind Holy Trinity Parish in his Subaru, which he called the “supersonic clergy car.” Most of his victims were altar boys.
Garabedian said those who had the power to stop Nickel turned a blind eye, according to a 1972 letter written by Nickel.
In that letter, Nickel denied allegations that he was sexually abusing boys and said his superior was aware of the accusations. “I cannot comprehend how the boys could say such things. I feel that these accusations are of a most serious nature,” he wrote. “I only wish that this could be handled in such a manner that no one would be hurt.”
Garabedian said that Nickel moved from parish to parish and was eventually transferred to Damien Ministries in 1999 after serving at Holy Trinity, Sacred Hearts Church in Fall River, and St. Mary’s Parish in Fairhaven.
“It’s not right how they just moved him . . . I feel broken,” said victim Rick Blakeley, 53, his voice cracking as he choked back tears. “It’s just horrible.”
Nickel preyed on boys who came from broken homes or whose families had problems, said Garabedian, and he formed close relationships with his victims’ families. Blakeley said the abuse began at Confraternity of Christian Doctrine classes when he was 12.
“You blamed yourself,” said Blakeley, who said he didn’t tell his family. His mother worked for the Catholic church, was unaware of what was happening, and often encouraged Blakeley to spend time with Nickel. She rewarded him with train sets.
To escape his abuser, Blakeley attended a prep school in Florida, but found himself face-to-face with Nickel again during a spring break trip to the Bahamas, where Nickel had been transferred. He abused Blakeley again.
For Chris Hopkins, 56, a married father of two children who now lives in Tennessee, the abuse started when he was 12 and an altar boy at Holy Trinity Church. Nickel, who was in his 30s at the time and had long hair, was known as the “cool” priest, he said. Hopkins said Nickel took him to several beaches and a retreat in Buzzards Bay where “he screwed up my life.” Hopkins attempted suicide at age 13, and later struggled with alcoholism.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever have closure,” said Hopkins. “For years, I had nightmares of being chased somewhere. . . . When he paid attention to me, it was a huge thing for an Irish Catholic family and he took advantage of that.”
Piersall said he found relief when Nickel was transferred away from Holy Trinity Parish. Nickel had been a regular at family dinners and had used Piersall’s father’s fame to exploit other boys.
“After he was transferred out, I tucked it into the back of my mind,” he said, but the settlement made him relive it all over again.
The Congregation of the Sacred Hearts, a religious order, was left out of an earlier version of this story.Jan Ransom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Jan_Ransom.