When it came to the Rev. Robert M. Burns and his sexual attraction to boys, the first consideration of the Archdiocese of Boston was secrecy.
In the early 1990s, keeping Burns’s crimes secret preoccupied top aides to Cardinal Bernard F. Law. They plotted how to mislead inquisitive reporters who might ask about Burns. And when a lawsuit against Burns was filed, the Rev. John B. McCormack, now a bishop, noted emphatically, “Papers are impounded - temporarily!”
The bishops also worried about how to squelch rumors. When Bishop Alfred C. Hughes expressed concern about an anonymous letter citing knowledge about Burns’s abuse, McCormack wrote back: “Shall we trace it?”
The cardinal’s aides even drafted a misleading press release, which minimized Burns’s ties to the archdiocese. And when Law ultimately moved to seek Burns removal from the priesthood, his request to the Vatican focused as much on the harm Burns had done to the church’s reputation as it did on the harm Burns had done to children.
“The immoral and illegal activities of Father Burns during his stay in the Archdiocese of Boston are the cause, potential and actual, of grave scandal,” Law wrote to the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano.
That penchant for secrecy and fear of scandal was shared by Law’s predecessor Cardinal Humberto S. Medeiros and his bishops. It eased the way for Burns to molest children undetected for nine years in parishes in Jamaica Plain and Charlestown.
Medeiros and at least two of his top bishops - Hughes and Thomas V. Daily - knew that Burns had a history of sexual abuse. Even so, they dispatched him to a parish where he would have contact with children - and decided that the pastor should be told nothing of his problems.
For years, the Archdiocese of Boston covered up the sexual misconduct of its priests by coaxing lawyers for victims into making secret settlements. And the documents in Burns’s files suggest that the lawyers knew their claims were worth more if they were settled in secret.
For example, one lawyer, Timothy P. O’Connell, opened a letter demanding a $1 million settlement for a Burns victim by noting that similar abuse cases, if they were decided in a jury trial, “generally receive wide publicity.”
The three largest claims paid to Burns’s victims, totaling more than $2 million, were paid secretly before news about him became public in 1996. One attorney who settled such cases said yesterday that he and other lawyers were able to secure larger settlements if the priest’s name had not been made public.
Burns, who was from the Youngstown, Ohio, Diocese, had asked to serve in Boston in 1982 as he concluded a year of treatment for child molestation at a church facility, the House of Affirmation in Whitinsville.
Medeiros knew about Burns’s past. Two of his bishops knew. And the records show that they all had “reservations” about giving him any assignment.
Rev. Gilbert S. Phinn, the clergy personnel director, suggested Burns be restricted to work as a convent chaplain. But Hughes, who is now the archbishop of New Orleans, favored sending Burns to a parish. The decision was contingent on the counselor’s recommendation.
“The [counselor’s] assessment clearly indicated that Fr. Burns should not be assigned to ministry in which he would come in contact with minors, especially grade school children,” the Rev. William F. Murphy wrote in 1998 after reviewing the file.
Even so, Medeiros assigned Burns to St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Jamaica Plain, and four years later to St. Mary’s Church in Charlestown.
In 1991, Burns was removed from St. Mary’s after the first Jamaica Plain complaints surfaced. In 1996, he pleaded guilty to indecent assault of a child for a 1995 incident in New Hampshire and was imprisoned for three years.
When the first lawsuit was filed in 1991, naming the archdiocese, chancery officials became intent on keeping the lawsuit secret. McCormack wrote in an early 1992 handwritten notation. “Urged press not to do anything.”
But just in case reporters came calling, McCormack suggested to Hughes that the cardinal should be prepared to respond. Among his suggestions: That they not admit Burns had been a Boston priest “if reporter confused” and identify Burns as “a priest who is not of the Arch of Boston.”
Archdiocesan fears that handling of Burns could cause a public furor prompted aides to Law to propose public statements that omitted any mention of the fact that Burns had served in the Boston Archdiocese for nine years.
On Feb. 5, 1992, two draft statements were prepared, one that said, “The tragic allegations involve a priest from outside the archdiocese of Boston.”
It was left to the Rev. Brian M. Flatley in 1996 to explain the secrecy about Burns to one of his victims. Flatley wrote that he told the victim that the church knew Burns was a molester.
”The young man expressed disbelief at this. He asked if we told anyone at St. Thomas Aquinas about Father Burns’ past. I said no, that Father Thomas knew nothing,” Flatley wrote. “He asked me how we could have done that. I told him that there is no good explanation.”Walter V. Robinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.