Desperate to contain the burgeoning scandal in the priesthood, the Archdiocese of Boston for years dealt in secret with allegations that a priest had terrorized and beaten his housekeeper, another had traded cocaine for sex, and a third had enticed young girls by claiming to be “the second coming of Christ,” newly released church records show.
In some cases, church officials - including Cardinal Bernard F. Law - reacted to the explosive charges by quietly transferring rogue priests to other parishes and treating them with a gentleness and sensitivity apparently unshaken by the heinous allegations against them.
In 1999, Law, for example, held out the prospect of a return to “appropriate” ministry to a priest who had, years earlier, told church officials that he knew one of his abuse victims had killed himself.
The reports of out-of-control clerical conduct - locked for years in secret church personnel files - became public yesterday after lawyers for alleged victims of the Rev. Paul R. Shanley made 2,200 pages of internal documents on eight priests part of their courtroom file.
They believe the mountain of paperwork, provided by the church under court order, confirms their contention that the church’s mishandling of notoriously abusive priests, including the now-defrocked and imprisoned John J. Geoghan, was standard procedure. They charge that the archdiocese worked furiously to hide its problem without concern for whether the priests would, in later assignments, abuse others - as they often did.
The archdiocese, racked by scandal and pondering bankruptcy, is now faced with the public airing of an archive that describes in sometimes stunning detail how it acted when it learned of sexual attacks by some of its clergy.
Donna M. Morrissey, the spokeswoman for the archdiocese, acknowledged last night that the revelations in the documents are “truly horrendous.” The archdiocese, she said, is “committed to the protection of children.”
Asked whether that was the case during the years covered by the documents, Morrissey replied: “I wish the policy we have now had been in place for the last 50 years. I don’t know what more I can say.”
Among the disclosures in the newly released records:
* At least three women, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, charged that the Rev. Robert Meffan had sexually abused them 25 years earlier under the guise of spiritual counseling.
The priest encouraged them to be “brides of Christ” and described himself as “the second coming of Christ,” according to the files. The women said that Meffan, now retired, regularly invited them to his bedroom where he encouraged them to “link spiritual stages with sexual acts,” including the fondling and kissing of genitals.
In an interview yesterday, Meffan acknowledged the sexual contact with the girls.
“I was trying to get them to love Christ even more intimately and even more closely,” Meffan said. “They were wonderful girls.”
* When the archdiocese feared the disclosure of its handling of Robert M. Burns, a former priest the church reassigned in 1982, despite knowing that he was a child molester, top aides to Law proposed public statements that would deliberately mislead the public about who was responsible for Burns’s supervision. Burns, who had worked in Boston for years, was to be labeled a “priest from outside the Archdiocese of Boston.”
* In 1984, clinicians recommended that the Rev. Thomas P. Forry, accused of beating his housekeeper and carrying on a long-term sexual relationship with a woman, remain at a clergy treatment center for six months. But after Law met with Forry, the priest was instead returned to his South Weymouth parish. Forry was not removed from ministry until early this year.
* And in 1999, Law told the Rev. Peter J. Frost, whose abuse had made him a candidate for defrocking, that he might yet restore his ministry because of “the wisdom which emerges from difficult experience.”
This was just one of several instances in which Law sent sympathetic, reassuring notes to priests against whom there were charges of sexual assault and abuse.
“It is very clear from the documents that Cardinal Law and top diocesan officials knew far more, far earlier, about far more priests and their abusive behavior than officials have ever let on, but did so very little to protect not just innocent children, but adults, boys and girls, church employees, and regular lay people,” said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
While the number of abusive archdiocesan priests has been known for months, the church fought efforts to divulge details of the abuse. The records released yesterday were made public only after victims’ lawyers won a ruling from a judge, who bluntly criticized the church for trying to sidestep her order to produce the personnel files.
Attorneys for Greenberg Traurig, the law firm that represents about half the 450 known victims of Boston priests, selected the files released yesterday and plan to make public records on nearly 60 more allegedly abusive priests in the coming weeks. The records of more than a dozen others were made public earlier this year.
Beyond revealing that the church’s crisis with sexually abusive clergy was widespread and common knowledge to church superiors, the records contain internal memos, correspondence, and personnel notes, details of which make clear why the church wanted to keep them from public view.
The church’s file on the Rev. Richard A. Buntel, for example, contains allegations that his marijuana and cocaine use was so prevalent when he was at St. Joseph’s Church in Malden, beginning in the late 1970s, that he had become known as “pothead.” Others knew him as the “blow king of Malden.”
In 1994, a Buntel victim sought a $500,000 settlement from the church. The boy’s lawyer charged that two of the priest’s drug dealers asked Buntel to make a pornographic film of himself sexually assaulting the teenager. The church and the victim ultimately settled the case for $55,000.
Buntel eventually admitted having sex with at least one teenager and with adult men, but when he was first confronted with allegations of misconduct in the summer of 1983, the priest denied that any problem was interfering with his priestly duties.
His response carried the day and, in August 1983, Buntel was reassigned from his Malden parish to St. Catherine parish in Westford. The transfer was made even after Bishop John M. D’Arcy raised strong questions about Buntel’s fitness for ministry. It was also D’Arcy, who a year later - in 1984 - would write to Law to question the cardinal’s decision to reassign Geoghan because of his history of sex abuse.
In both instances, the warnings issued by D’Arcy, who was named bishop of the Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., Diocese in 1985, went unheeded.
In Buntel’s case, D’Arcy wrote to Bishop Thomas V. Daily that the priest’s superiors were aware of Buntel’s alcoholism, repeated drug use, allegations that he gave drugs to young people, and rumored “homosexual activity.”
D’Arcy said he considered the charges against the priest to be credible.
”It is my conviction, as I believe it is yours as well, that we who are in the position of responsibility have the obligation to try to prevent scandal in those cases where it seems almost definite that it will occur,” D’Arcy wrote Daily.
When Daily shared D’Arcy’s concerns with Buntel, the accused priest grew “upset and angry” and insisted his problems were under control. And he took up his new assignment.
Buntel served in Westford until 1994, when he was again questioned about the 1983 allegation that he had provided cocaine to a 15-year-old boy in Malden, in exchange for allowing the priest to perform oral sex on him, according to a church memo. When he was confronted with that allegation, Buntel admitted the drug use. But he said he did not have sex with the boy until after his 18th birthday.
He has been on administrative leave since March 1994.
D’Arcy also tried to warn his superiors about the conduct of Forry, who escaped discipline even after a physician wrote in 1979 that the priest had beaten up his 58-year-old housekeeper. It was, the doctor wrote, his second attack on the woman, resulting in cuts and bruises and a scalp injury, as clumps of the woman’s hair were yanked out by the roots in the attack.
In July 1984, Law and other top church officials learned of allegations that Forry was sexually involved with a woman. He later would be accused of sexually assaulting her son. Nevertheless, Law approved Forry’s assignment as a full-time Army chaplain in 1988 without any reference to the allegations against him or a recommendation that he receive psychiatric help.
“I have every confidence that you will render fine priestly service to the people who come under your care,” Law wrote.
Forry kept his position in the church until early this year, when two parishioners from Quincy alleged he had molested them.
Frost, whose active ministry ended in 1992 when he was removed from St. Anne’s Church in Readville, said he met with Law in 1994. Frost by then had admitted he had sexually abused boys as far back as 1969, when he was a deacon and still a year away from ordination into the priesthood.
In a handwritten, five-page letter to Law in April 1994, Frost said he was gay and a “sex addict.” He said he was abused as a 10-year-old and had learned early not to trust adult men.
“I cannot remove from my memory that one of my victims committed suicide because I would not give him an answer to his question, `How do I accept my homosexuality?’ You see, I hated my homosexuality and did all I could to show I was not gay. I became an active homophobic and hated all gays, myself included,” Frost wrote to Law.
But Frost, now 62, chafed against the archdiocese’s refusal to allow him any public ministry and successfully fended off the recommendation that he be laicized, or formally stripped of his priestly identity. Frost could not be reached yesterday for comment.
”He has decided that everyone else is forgiven by the church except priests who have been involved in sexual misconduct,” a 1995 confidential memo in Frost’s file states. “. . . He wrote a letter to members of his family, telling them that he is gay, that accusations have been made against him, and that he will not be returning to ministry. They have been very supportive. Priests have not been supportive at all.”
If his fellow priests shunned him, Frost would find support four years later, in 1999, from the upper reaches of the archdiocesan hierarchy.
”It is my hope that some day in the future you will return to an appropriate ministry, bringing with you the wisdom which emerges from difficult experience,” Law wrote on April 12, 1999. “In the meantime, I want you to know that you and your family are in my prayers. I am especially sympathetic as you care for your mother. The Lord will give you a deep gratitude for the many opportunities you now have to show kindness to her.
“If I may be of particular help, Peter, please let me know.”
Burns, who pleaded guilty in 1996 to sexually abusing two New Hampshire children the year before, also received a solicitous letter from the cardinal when he was removed in 1991 for molesting children, the newly released records show.
Law wrote to Burns that he was grateful “for the care you have given to the people of the Archdiocese of Boston. . . . I am certain that during this time you have been a generous instrument of the Lord’s love in the lives of most people you served . . . Life is never just one moment or one event and it would be too unrealistic to have too narrow a focus. It would have been better had things ended differently, but such was not the case.”
Law offered prayers that Burns’s “courage and hope will remain strong.”
The records also indicate that church officials in Boston virtually ignored a 1994 complaint against the Rev. W. James Nyhan that was lodged by a South Carolina boy, who said Nyhan abused him in 1979-1980. Without interviewing the complainant, church officials accepted Nyhan’s denial and he was returned to church work.
Nyhan, pastor of St. Mary Church in Billerica, was removed from ministry in June after a Quincy man complained that Nyhan molested him repeatedly in the 1970s. A third man wrote to the archdiocese this year to report that his 1997 complaint to the archdiocese that Nyhan had molested him was ignored.
Law, who has said he never intended to “protect a priest accused of misconduct against minors at the expense of those whom he is ordained to serve,” was confronted with accusations of clergy sexual abuse almost immediately after becoming archbishop of Boston in March 1984. The case of the Rev. Robert H. Morrissette, which drew Law’s attention that year, was one of those earliest notices.
Law received copies of memos about complaints that Morrissette may have molested youths at St. Joseph’s parish in Salem, where he was associate pastor.
According to the records, Morrissette was accused of fondling a 16-year-old boy in his rectory room at St. Joseph’s. The teenager’s parents were threatening to go to the police if Morrissette was not transferred.
That was not the only problem, the records show. The mother of another youth, a college student, reported that Morrissette had allowed him to spend a night in his room.
A third family had alleged that there were other unspecified incidents involving Morrissette and Boy Scouts and that he had been seen at Boston gay bars.
Morrissette, who declined to comment about the records yesterday, admitted that he had run his hand up and down the leg of the 16-year-old in his rectory room, but denied he had acted inappropriately with any other youths, including the college student.
With Law’s approval, his top deputies decided that the best way to deal with the allegations was to move Morrissette. He was assigned as an associate pastor at a church in Bellingham, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary - 67 miles away.
Law placed no restrictions on Morrissette’s work at the new church, telling him in a December 1984 letter, “I am confident that you will render fine priestly service to the People of God in Assumption parish.”
In October 1993, an archdiocesan review board voted that Morrissette, then 44, should be removed from ministry and placed in counseling. Morrissette is listed in the most recent directory of priests as being assigned to the clergy personnel office.Michael Rezendes, Matthew Carroll, Walter V. Robinson, and Stephen Kurkjian of the Globe staff contributed to this report.