Cardinal Bernard F. Law recommended the former dean of St. John’s Seminary in Brighton for a teaching job at a Catholic college in North Carolina in 1997, less than two years after Law dismissed him for having improper physical contact with a 19-year-old seminarian at St. John’s.
Law provided a written assurance to Belmont Abbey College that the Rev. George C. Berthold had an unblemished record, despite Berthold’s November 1995 dismissal. Just two months after he became dean of St. John’s undergraduate college, Berthold was accused of making improper advances toward a freshman seminarian, including kissing him on the lips.
Officials at Belmont Abbey expressed irritation that they knew nothing about the episode until a Globe reporter called it to their attention last week.
“If he [Berthold] had been removed because of a disciplinary problem, then he should not have been given that letter because we would not have hired him,” Teresa Sowers McKinney, spokeswoman for the college, said after consulting with the school’s chancellor, Abbot Placid Solari.
“Even if there had been an allegation, we should have been told so we could have decided on our own” whether to hire Berthold, McKinney added. She declined to make public a copy of Law’s 1997 letter.
Law’s willingness to vouch for Berthold is similar to what the archdiocese did for the Rev. Paul R. Shanley when he sought an out-of-state assignment in 1990. That year, Bishop Robert J. Banks, Law’s top deputy, assured the Diocese of San Bernardino in California there were no problems in Shanley’s background, even though Shanley’s file included allegations that he had molested boys and advocated sexual relations between men and boys.
But when the Shanley letter came to light in April, Banks asserted that he had been unaware of what was in Shanley’s file when he wrote the letter. In Berthold’s case, Law was personally involved in the decision to fire Berthold, according to the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, a spokesman for the archdiocese.
In the Shanley case, the cardinal’s critics have accused him of being more concerned for the welfare of offending priests than for their alleged victims. After Berthold was dismissed from St. John’s, the seminarian, Christopher J. Sellars, transferred to another seminary. Last week, Sellars said he was disappointed with the way he was treated by Law and other seminary officials after he came forward.
What’s more, Law’s willingness to help Berthold obtain another position that would put him in contact with young men is another reminder that the archdiocese has only recently taken an unforgiving stance on issues of sexual misbehavior.
Even that tough new policy has its gaps: Despite Berthold’s dismissal, and an unrelated lawsuit filed in 2000 accusing him of molesting a boy three decades ago, he was scheduled to teach a course this summer at a Catholic university in Ontario. The course was scrubbed last week after the university learned from the Globe about Berthold’s history.
It was unclear whether Berthold sought archdiocesan permission to teach the course. Since 1999, the archdiocese has listed Berthold as “unassigned.” Reached by telephone in New Hampshire, Berthold refused to answer any questions.
After Law’s 1997 letter, Berthold spent more than a year teaching at Belmont Abbey in Belmont, N.C. - until October 1998 when the Boston archdiocese informed the college that it was withdrawing its letter of approval. The reason for that withdrawal was not stated, McKinney said, “but we withdrew his contract as soon as we learned of it.”
By early 1999, the archdiocese was aware of a sexual abuse complaint against Berthold. By mid-1999, the archdiocese was notified about the allegation - and subsequent lawsuit - that Berthold molested a boy when he was assigned to St. Joseph Church in Woburn in 1972.
Donna M. Morrissey, the cardinal’s spokeswoman, did not return telephone calls seeking comment from Law.
However, Monsignor Timothy J. Moran, who as rector of St. John Seminary’s College and School of Theology and was Berthold’s supervisor in 1995, confirmed in an interview that Berthold left after the allegation by Sellars surfaced. [CLARIFICATION: A story on the ouster of Rev. George C. Berthold as dean of the undergraduate program at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton for inappropriate physical contact with a seminarian, Christopher J. Sellars, may have left the impression that the former seminary rector, Monsignor Timothy J. Moran, provided the Globe with the seminarian’s name. The reporter obtained Sellars’s name from someone other than Moran, and then interviewed Sellars.]
“Yes, it was a very difficult thing to hear,” said Moran, who is now pastor of St. Joseph Church in Medway. “It was a problem that we had to deal with, and we did.”
Moran confirmed that both he and Law had interviewed Sellars and found his account credible. Law supported Moran’s recommendation to the seminary’s board of trustees that Berthold be removed, Moran said.
Berthold, who had just taken over as dean in September, announced at the school’s Thanksgiving banquet that he was leaving because of “health reasons.”
The resignation was a stunning blow for Berthold, who is now 67. He had spent most of his career in college classrooms, particularly at St. Anselm’s in Manchester, N.H., and is considered a leading authority on the fathers of the early Christian church.
The resignation ended more than a month’s turmoil for Sellars, a Tulsa native, who was the first high school graduate from his city to be accepted for St. John’s four-year undergraduate college. He arrived in Boston, he said, full of hope about a life in the priesthood.
However, a few weeks into the fall semester, Sellars said, he noticed that Berthold was paying special attention to him. According to Sellars’s account, on one occasion Berthold gave him a long, full-body hug, and soon afterward, invited Sellars to accompany him on a trip to New York.
Feeling uncomfortable about the attention Berthold was showing him, Sellars decided to confront the dean and tell him to desist. At the meeting, Berthold tried to allay Sellars’s concerns and told him that he was reading too much into his friendliness. He then approached Sellars, kissed him on the lips and said: “You can call me `Daddy,’ and I’ll call you `my little boy.’ “
Sellars said he hurried from Berthold’s office and quickly reported what had occurred to Moran. Moran promised to investigate, and a few days later he summoned Sellars back to his office. “Moran told me that it would be my word against Father Berthold’s so he gave me a small tape recorder, and told me to go back into Father Berthold’s office and get him to admit what he had done,” Sellars said.
Although Berthold did not confess, Sellars recalled, he said sufficiently incriminating things that Moran agreed to inform Law of the incident. Sellars, too, asked to speak to Law.
Law was in Washington, attending a meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops at the time, and although Sellars was flown there to meet with Law, he came away disappointed.
“I guess I was looking for an apology, or at least a recognition that what had happened was wrong,” Sellars said. Law told Sellars that he was aware that Sellars had lodged a complaint against Berthold, and assured him that he and Moran were looking into it.
Yesterday, Coyne, the spokesman for the archdiocese, confirmed the substance of Sellars’s account after conferring with Bishop Richard G. Lennon, rector of the seminary, and the Rev. Robert W. Flagg, dean of the college.
Coyne said the two seminary officials reviewed the records, which show that Berthold acknowledged at the time that he had kissed Sellars - but on the cheeks and not the lips. Having studied in France between 1969 and 1971, Berthold said he had become accustomed to kissing people on the cheeks, Coyne said.
Coyne, who was teaching at the seminary at the time, said that the faculty was told that Berthold had acted inappropriately with a student and had been suspended. At the end of the semester, the faculty was told that Berthold had been dismissed, Coyne said.
Berthold’s departure did not alleviate Sellars’s discomfort. Upset by his treatment by Moran and Law, he transferred to an Indiana seminary college. After graduation, he entered St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, Calif. He is to be ordained next year.
Berthold was scheduled to teach a course this summer at an institute in Eastern Christian studies at St. Paul University in Ontario. The Rev. Andrew T. Onuferko, assistant director of administration for the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute, said Monday that the archdiocese had not informed the institute of any problems on Berthold’s record, nor had the institute asked. Onuferko said that following the Globe’s inquiry about Berthold, the institute informed him that he would not be needed to teach the month-long summer course.
Also, the archdiocese permitted Berthold to make presentations at conferences in 1998 and in 2001 - a year after the lawsuit was filed - that were sponsored by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Canonical Orthodox Bishops of America.