You can now read 10 articles in a month for free on BostonGlobe.com. Read as much as you want anywhere and anytime for just 99¢.

The Boston Globe

Special Reports

Scores of priests involved in sex abuse cases

Settlements kept scope of issue out of public eye

Cardinal Bernard Law says he “cannot estimate” how many priests have molested children.

David Kamerman/Globe Staff

Cardinal Bernard Law says he “cannot estimate” how many priests have molested children.

This article was reported by the Globe Spotlight Team: Reporters Matt Carroll, Sacha Pfeiffer, and Michael Rezendes; senior assistant metropolitan editor Stephen Kurkjian;and editor Walter V. Robinson. It was written by Robinson.

Under an extraordinary cloak of secrecy, the Archdiocese of Boston in the last 10 years has quietly settled child molestation claims against at least 70 priests, according to an investigation by the Globe Spotlight Team.

In the public arena alone, the Globe found court records and other documents that identify 19 present and former priests as accused pedophiles. Four have been convicted of criminal charges of sex abuse, including former priest John J. Geoghan. Two others face criminal charges.

Continue reading below

But those public cases represent just a fraction of the priests whose cases have been disposed of in private negotiations that never brought the parties near a courthouse, according to interviews with many of the attorneys involved.

One law firm alone won financial settlements for its clients against at least 45 priests and five brothers from religious orders, according to the lead attorney in those cases, Roderick MacLeish Jr.

Although the settlements are secret, the church’s annual directories, which list where priests are assigned, are public. From them, the Globe developed a database to track assignments of clergy, and those data strongly suggest that large numbers of priests were involved in sexual abuse cases that were settled.

The database identified 102 priests who were placed on sick leave or otherwise removed from parish assignments in the early to mid-1990s. The archdiocese settled claims of sexual abuse against at least 30 of those priests, according to public records, lawyers involved in the cases, and, in some instances, their own admissions.

The estimate of 70 is conservative, according to lawyers. It includes priests named in lawsuits, the 50 cited by MacLeish, the estimates of other attorneys who also settled cases privately, and interviews with some victims who have contacted the Globe about their settlements. Moreover, the Globe learned of about 20 other court suits where the records have been impounded.

In another sign of the extent of the clergy misconduct, including sexual abuse, the church’s annual directories show that the number of priests shifted out of parishes and placed in such categories as “sick leave,” “absent on leave,” and “awaiting assignment” grew to 107 in 1994. That is more than three times the annual number placed in similar categories a decade earlier.

To be sure, some of those priests appear to have had other reasons to have been sidelined. Two of them, in recent interviews, insisted that they were removed for alcohol-related problems.

Of the priests who did abuse children, many were sent off to be chaplains in hospitals and prisons. But Cardinal Bernard F. Law said this month that no priest who has abused children will hold any assignment in the archdiocese. The cardinal appears to be acting on that promise. Since last week, two of the priests have said in interviews that they were recently told that they are being removed from the rolls of archdiocesan priests.

Even if no more than 70 pedophile priests were involved in settlements in the last decade, that represents an enormous drain on the church’s ability to staff its churches: the Boston Archdiocese now has only about 650 active diocesan priests. There are an estimated 700 priests from religious orders stationed in the archdiocese, which is also legally liable for any sexual misconduct by them. There are about 100 religious brothers in the archdiocese.

No matter how large, the numbers are strong evidence that Law moved decisively to take sex abusers out of circulation after 1992. That was the year the archdiocese faced a flood of complaints from victims in the aftermath of the horrific 1992 sex abuse revelations against former priest James R. Porter in the Fall River diocese.

On Tuesday, the Globe asked Donna M. Morrissey, the cardinal’s spokeswoman, for information about the private settlements, and the number of priests involved. By last night she had not responded to any of the newspaper’s questions. But just before 8 p.m., the archdiocese announced that it had turned over to authorities the names of all priests accused of sexual abuse over 40 years. The number was not disclosed.

In interviews over the last several months, lawyers who were involved in the private cases said the church’s primary objective was clear - to avoid public scandal at whatever cost. One attorney who was privy to the church’s strategy said the archdiocese was so eager to keep victims from going public or taking claims to court that it even paid some dubious claims.

”The cardinal was running scared after the Porter case, so the archdiocese paid what amounted to `hush money’ to settle cases. Their motive was to avoid scandal and hope it would all go away,” said the attorney, who asked that he not be identified.

In their private remarks, two other attorneys who represented victims of sexual abuse also referred to the settlements as “hush money.”

One example: In the mid-’90s, the archdiocese was so fearful that Geoghan’s serial pedophilia would explode into public view that it paid a $400,000 settlement for sexually explicit telephone calls Geoghan placed to children in one family, according to a lawyer who played a role in the settlement.

Attorneys and some victims said that, in individual cases, the secret settlements insisted on by Wilson D. Rogers Jr., the cardinal’s lawyer, were appropriate: The settlements were arranged quickly, the victim’s privacy was assured and, most important for many victims, the church pledged to keep the offending priest away from children.

But now, there is palpable unease, among some victims and lawyers, about the cumulative effect of so many secret agreements.

”I’m ashamed I took their money now,” said Raymond P. Sinibaldi, who won a settlement from the church in 1995 after allegedly being abused by a priest, the Rev. Ernest E. Tourigney, at Immaculate Conception in Weymouth in the 1960s. “I should have gone and reported it to the police, or filed a lawsuit and called a press conference to announce it. If we had done that, this problem would have been exposed long ago.”

”Obviously, confidentiality agreements are good for the perpetrator and his or her enablers since the secrecy allows for further wrongful acts to continue,” said Mitchell Garabedian, who has already settled nearly 50 cases for Geoghan victims.

Garabedian, in his public lawsuits for 86 additional Geoghan victims, forced the archdiocese to provide him with thousands of pages of secret church records that documented how much Law and other bishops knew about Geoghan’s sex abuse. But even those documents were under a court-ordered confidentiality seal until a motion by the Globe prompted the trial judge, and subsequently an appellate court, to order them made public, over the objections of the church.

However, the church was not required to produce documents for the secret agreements secured by the archdiocese, or for the publicly filed lawsuits it settled.

That means any evidence that the church had contemporaneous knowledge of sex abuse by any of the priests will remain hidden, unless it emerges in subsequent criminal cases now that Law has agreed to forward to authorities any evidence about known abusers.

In one case the archdiocese settled privately - that of former priest Robert M. Burns - archdiocesan officials knew about his history of pedophilia when they assigned him to St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Jamaica Plain in 1982, and to St. Mary’s Church in Charlestown in 1985. New allegations of abuse from both parishes emerged in 1991, and Burns was removed from priestly functions.

After being treated for pedophilia in 1982, Burns was called in to see the Rev. Gilbert S. Phinn, then the director of clergy personnel. Phinn, according to sources involved with the case, instructed Burns to say nothing to his pastor about his history.

The Rev. John Thomas, the pastor who welcomed Burns to St. Thomas Aquinas, has told others that he was unaware of the issue.

Phinn, who is now pastor at St. Elizabeth’s Church in Milton, said yesterday, “I prefer not to discuss it,” when he was asked whether he instructed Burns not to alert his new pastor that he had a history of abusing children.

This month, the cardinal has pointed to the success of his January 1993 policy that led to a review of clergy personnel files for evidence of past complaints of abuse. Priests found to have had such complaints, and priests facing fresh charges as victims came forward, were removed from parish duty, Law said.

But the cardinal has sidestepped questions asking him how many diocesan priests were ensnared under the new rules, and left the impression that the number is minimal.

Asked at a Jan. 9 news conference to say how many priests were involved in molesting children, Law said, “I cannot estimate a number.” But he said he agreed with a published estimate, in a Globe editorial that day, that it was a “small minority.”

Asked again last week, Law said: “I can’t say how many.”

Not all of the sexual molestation cases against members of the clergy have been kept out of the public arena, though some have gone unnoticed.

In court files and other public documents, the Spotlight Team found evidence of claims - settled or pending - and in some cases criminal charges, against 19 priests and one former seminarian. Two of those priests have been removed from their parishes since October, following accusations that they molested children.

In another 20 civil lawsuits that have been settled in Middlesex, Suffolk, and Essex counties, judges took the unusual step of impounding the names of the priests and their victims. In Middlesex and Suffolk, attorneys for the Globe have filed motions asking that the impoundment orders be lifted.

But according to MacLeish, and other lawyers who have represented victims of priests, the vast majority of the cases have been settled privately, without any court action.

MacLeish, who represented more than 100 of Porter’s victims in the early 1990s, said last weekend that, given the revelations in the Geoghan case, it is time for the public to know how many other priests were guilty of similar behavior.

Because of the secrecy involved, it is equally difficult to pinpoint the number of victims in the Boston archdiocese whose cases have been settled. But by most estimates, the number exceeds 200.

Since Jan. 6, when the Globe reported the extent of the church’s knowledge of Geoghan’s sexual abuse, several attorneys have said that they have received calls from many other people seeking help in pressing fresh claims against priests.

Robert A. Sherman, a partner with MacLeish at Greenberg Traurig law firm who represented many of the earlier victims, said yesterday that confidentiality was a major factor for the archdiocese in its willingness to settle cases.

Sherman said he does not think such secrecy agreements are good public policy on an issue of this importance. But like other lawyers, Sherman said his first obligation was to his clients. They were advised, he said, that they could sue the archdiocese in court.

”But my role was to help these victims and their families close painful chapters in their lives. For most of them, getting a check from the archdiocese and a promise that the priest would not be allowed near children again was vindication for them, an acknowledgment that they had been wronged,” Sherman said.

Even though the church produced no documents in those cases, Sherman noted that the archdiocese is not legally responsible for the conduct of its priests unless they knew or should have known that the abuse was occurring.

Sherman said he believes the church’s oversight failures motivated the settlements. There was, he said, “a likelihood that someone in a supervisory capacity knew or should have known that the abuse was occurring, but did nothing to stop it.”

Sherman said he is grateful that Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly urged Law to turn over to authorities the names of priests involved in past acts of abuse for possible prosecution, and that Law then agreed to do so.

But for now, the identities of those removed by Law remain secret. And Sherman, like other lawyers, noted that the confidentiality clauses are binding contracts for the lawyers involved.

Nevertheless, the Globe has learned the identities of nearly 40 of the priests and former priests for whom the archdiocese has settled claims of sexual abuse. Since last Friday, four of the priests or their attorneys have acknowledged that claims against them have been settled, although three of the priests have denied any wrongdoing.

The four are Ronald H. Paquin, who admitted sexually abusing children until he was placed on sick leave in 1990 after being removed from St. John the Baptist Church in Haverhill; Jay M. Mullin, who was accused of abusing a child at St. Anthony’s parish in Allston; Bernard J. Lane, who was accused of raping teenage boys at a church-run treatment center in Littleton; and C. Melvin Surette, who was accused of sexual abuse at the same Littleton facility.

Lane and Mullin, while acknowledging their accusers received settlements, denied that they were guilty of any abuse. Surette’s lawyer, Michael E. Mone, acknowledged the archdiocese settled a claim against Surette, but said Surette denies the allegations.

Despite Law’s attempt at a clean sweep starting in 1993, his policy that year said some offending priests might be placed back in parishes after appropriate treatment, and with proper monitoring. And the records examined by the Globe show that some of them, Mullin among them, have since had parish assignments.

But the vast majority have been effectively removed from parish service, and many of them are living unsupervised in local communities, among neighbors who know nothing about their past problems, or whether they might still pose a danger to children.

Last week, Law himself expressed that concern when he said he will notify authorities about the priests. He said he had removed all of the priests from any positions having contact with children. But, he said, the priests “still exist, and they still exist with that problem, and I don’t have police powers.”

David Clohessy, the national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the tendency by dioceses around the country to seek private settlements in cases against priests has left the Catholic public with little knowledge of the extent of the sexual abuse problem within the church.

In the Boston archdiocese, that is now changing. Even one of the priests whose abuse of children resulted in confidential settlements said he has been troubled at how the church managed to hide his problems, and those of so many other priests, from an unsuspecting public.

The priest, who like many others was removed from his parish in the early 1990s, disagrees with the view of many lawyers that Law was seeking to protect his own public image. “What they were protecting was their notion that the church is a perfect society,” said the priest, who asked that his name not be used. “If the archdiocese really wanted to protect its other priests from scandal, they would have gotten those of us who abused children out of there much earlier.”

You have reached the limit of 10 free articles in a month

Stay informed with unlimited access to Boston’s trusted news source.

  • High-quality journalism from the region’s largest newsroom
  • Convenient access across all of your devices
  • Today’s Headlines daily newsletter
  • Subscriber-only access to exclusive offers, events, contests, eBooks, and more
  • Less than 25¢ a week