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The Rev. James Foley, shown here in a picture from his seminary class of 1978. Foley, now 60, has survived in a kind of purgatorial state for years.
The Rev. James Foley, shown here in a picture from his seminary class of 1978. Foley, now 60, has survived in a kind of purgatorial state for years. seminary class photo

The Rev. James J. Foley Jr.’s fall from grace came swiftly. In 1999, while on temporary assignment in New Mexico, he was ordered to return home to Boston right away: A former parishioner had accused him of sexual abuse. Within days, Foley was removed from public ministry, then placed on leave.

Thirteen years later, he is a practicing attorney in the secular world — and still on the church’s payroll, having earned about $400,000, plus full health benefits, while his case has languished in the church’s internal legal system.

Foley, now 60, has survived in a kind of purgatorial state for years. The church has not yet decided whether to dismiss him.

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Casting himself as an innocent victim of the church’s zero-tolerance policy on sexual abuse, he has fought removal from ministry relentlessly.

He lashed out at his archdiocesan superiors for refusing to give him another job and denying him the chance to confront his accuser. Frustrated, he appealed to the Vatican, asking for a fair hearing and the chance to defend himself.

In a letter to Boston Cardinal Bernard F. Law in 2002,Cardinal Joseph A. Ratzinger — then head of the Vatican office dealing with sexual abuse, and now the pope — recommended Foley be given that opportunity.

But testimony in Foley’s canonical trial began only last year. Shortly thereafter, another former parishioner told the archdiocese that he, too, had been abused by Foley, from the time he was a 12- or 13-year-old altar boy until just after he graduated from Harvard.

The archdiocese paid that man a settlement and reported the allegations to Suffolk County prosecutors and the attorney general’s office. Foley continues to practice law and get his church paycheck.

Meanwhile, his alleged victims and their families remain in limbo as well, waiting to see whether the church permanently removes him from ministry.

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The archdiocese would not comment on Foley, citing an active law enforcement investigation. It remains unclear because of the time elapsed since the alleged abuse whether he could be charged even if investigators found evidence.

Foley, reached at his law office in Lowell, referred calls to his attorney, Joseph S. Provanzano of Peabody, who in two brief phone interviews said his client was unaware of the second complaint and called the very idea of a law enforcement investigation “absurd.” He ridiculed the notion that the sexual abuse of a minor could extend into a victim’s early 20s, or that it could have taken someone so highly educated so long to report abuse.

“And you’ve heard of this thing called the statute of limitations,” Provanzano added. “Would it not apply here?”

Nearly four weeks after he was initially contacted for this story, Provanzano canceled a planned in-person interview with Foley.

Both men who accused Foley of abusing them were interviewed for this story. The Globe does not name victims of sexual abuse without their express permission, which neither man granted.

• • •

It is surprising, in a way, that Foley has battled so hard to remain a priest. Judging by his 700-page personnel file, one of many records of abused priests released by the archdiocese in 2002, Foley was unhappy much of his career.

Born and raised in Everett, Foley was sent to work at St. Ann’s in Dorchester after he graduated from the seminary in 1978. He was reassigned three years later — notes in his file say “he could no longer put up with the pastor” — to Holy Name Parish in West Roxbury. It was a large, busy congregation full of young families and staffed, at the time, by as many as a half-dozen priests.

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Holy Name Parish in West Roxbury was a large, busy congregation full of young families and staffed at the time by as many as a half-dozen priests.
Holy Name Parish in West Roxbury was a large, busy congregation full of young families and staffed at the time by as many as a half-dozen priests.DAVID L RYAN/GLOBE STAFF/Globe Staff

In an interview, the mother of the first alleged victim remembered Foley visiting her four or five times when her children were at school, complaining about how miserable he was. An “ultraconservative” who would march late-arriving teenagers from the back pew to the front of the church, the heavy-set young priest was hard to like, the mother said. But she “treated him almost like a son” because she felt sorry for him and felt he needed comfort.

“I just thought he was a really sad person who was in the wrong profession,” she said. “He was proud of being a priest — and yet it didn’t make him happy.”

He applied unsuccessfully to be a chaplain at three Catholic high schools, according to his file, and he struggled to lose weight so he could join the Army Reserve as a chaplain. In 1986, he begged the archdiocese to let him serve temporarily in San Bernardino, Calif., the home of a priest he’d met during a pilgrimage to the religious shrines in Lourdes, France, and Fatima, Portugal. His request was denied.

“Disillusionment. Disenchantment,” wrote an archdiocesan administrator in his notes on a meeting with Foley then. “… Wept to A.B.L. [Archbishop Bernard Law]. … Feels isolated from brother priests … is not coping well.”

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He was transferred to St. Francis Xavier Cabrini in Scituate just months before a planned sabbatical in Belgium. The file doesn’t speak to why, but for a time, Law seemed to take an interest in Foley’s career, even though the priest never rose to a position of importance. In 1992, shortly after Foley returned from Belgium, the cardinal arranged for him to enter a new chaplaincy training program at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Brighton.

There, Foley alienated colleagues, who complained to the archdiocese that Foley often slept past 11 a.m., worked fewer than four days a week, and failed to show up for two Masses and a call to visit the family of a dying patient. Foley called the complaints unfair and inaccurate. The file suggests Law lost patience with Foley after that.

In the mid-1990s, he served as an assistant pastor at St. Mary Star of the Sea in Beverly, and applied for a dozen different pastoral positions without success. In 1997, he finally left for a temporary assignment in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, in New Mexico.

Foley’s life finally seemed to take a turn for the better out West. The archbishop of Santa Fe sent a glowing letter to Law after Foley was called home, saying Mass attendance and collections were up at the parishes in Foley’s charge.

“We will miss him,” the archbishop wrote.

• • •

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It wasn’t until his first child was born, in 1998, that the first man who asserts that Foley abused him confronted the alleged events of his young adolescence.

He told his family about those past events, and then informed another priest. He spoke with someone at the archdiocese, he said, who assured him Foley would no longer be working with children. There is no mention of this, however, in Foley’s file.

Eight months later, the man’s mother saw a notice in the weekly Holy Name bulletin asking parishioners to donate liturgical supplies to Foley’s parishes in New Mexico. Upset, she spoke to her pastor about it after Mass. He called the archdiocese, which brought her son in for an interview.

A confidential memo in Foley’s file describes the complainant as “very relaxed, confident, and engaging.” He had been a quiet boy who worked afternoons in the Holy Name rectory, he said.

Foley, he said, used to pull him away from other children to ask crude questions about sex, which made him deeply uncomfortable. The priest, he said, invited him on a trip to New Hampshire, promising him alcohol, but his mother would not allow the trip. One afternoon in 1983 or 1984, he said, Foley summoned him to a rectory bedroom and asked the boy to take out his penis, as if for a kind of physical exam.

Foley examined it in his hand for several minutes. The boy, upset as he left the room, confided in the parish cook.

The boy remained deeply intimidated by Foley.

Back from New Mexico, Foley denied the story, saying he had only been advising the 14-year-old on bodybuilding. Another parishioner, he explained, had shown him how to track progress by measuring growing muscles. Foley insisted he had never touched the boy’s genitals.

“I am only guilty of gross stupidity and indiscretion,” he told archdiocesan officials who interrogated him.

But the archdiocese packed him off to the Southdown Institute, a treatment center near Toronto.

When Foley returned to Boston seven months later, he stayed in the East Boston rectory where the Rev. Robert F. Hennessey, a close friend from his seminary class who is now an auxiliary bishop in Boston, was living. Foley’s pleas for a new assignment, however, were refused. He wrote to Law repeatedly, asserting his innocence and imploring the cardinal to reinstate him.

“The pain and suffering that I have endured these past nine months has been unparalleled in my life and seems apparently to be without end,” he wrote to Law. “… I cannot help thinking that zero tolerance equals zero justice, and therefore zero charity.”

In a letter to Cardinal Law (above), Cardinal Joseph A. Ratzinger, then head of the Vatican office dealing with sexual abuse and now the pope, recommended that Foley be given an opportunity to defend himself.
In a letter to Cardinal Law (above), Cardinal Joseph A. Ratzinger, then head of the Vatican office dealing with sexual abuse and now the pope, recommended that Foley be given an opportunity to defend himself.REUTERS/File

Law assured Foley that he understood his distress and urged him to have patience and continue his work. But despite a report from Southdown that deemed Foley “at very minimal risk for ministerial boundary violations,” he remained unassigned. The archdiocesan review board in charge of sexual abuse cases decided Foley should remain restricted from parish ministry or any ministry involving minors while he continued to work on his treatment plan.

“Why?” Foley raged in a letter to Law. “. . . You’re a priest, a bishop, and a Cardinal of the Holy Mother Church. In the name of our Lord Jesus you should not permit this to happen to me.”

The archdiocesan personnel director rejected a proposal from Foley’s therapist to let him live and work in a contemplative community, and dismissed a suggestion from Hennessey to let Foley preach for a missionary society.

In May 2001, Foley appointed a canonical advocate, the Rev. Mark L. Bartchak, to represent him. Bartchak, now the bishop of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, Pa., declined to comment for this story through a spokesman.

Winter drew near — and along with it, the trial of the Rev. John J. Geoghan, one of the worst sexual offenders in US church history. In January 2002, the sexual abuse scandal exploded.

A couple of weeks later, the archdiocese notified Foley by certified mail that he had been reported to law enforcement. Then Foley was asked to leave the rectory in Natick where he’d been living.

Foley never got another church assignment. He nevertheless remained on the payroll; canon law requires bishops to provide for the basic needs of priests until they die, voluntarily leave the priesthood, or are “dismissed from the clerical state.”

In the meantime, Foley went to law school, graduating from the Massachusetts School of Law in Andover in 2008. He applied to the bar the following year. In his application, answering a question about whether he had ever been the subject of a conduct complaint in another profession, he disclosed what the first complainant alleged he had done.

“I DID NOT!” he responded in his bar application.

But Foley failed the bar exam. Around the same time, the first complainant’s mother said her family was informed by the archdiocese that a canonical trial would be held. The call put the man who alleged abuse and his family on edge again.

“We waited and waited for the call to come and have that trial,” said the complainant’s mother. “It went on and on, and nothing happened.”

Foley passed the bar exam in February 2011, on his fourth try. The Board of Bar Examiners sent a standard-issue letter to Foley that April, asking him to forward any new information if necessary to his application. If he did, it is not in his bar file.

It is not clear whether the Board of Bar Examiners contacted the archdiocese, or vice versa. The board does not comment on pending or past bar applications as a matter of policy, a spokeswoman said. Foley was admitted to the bar in June 2011.

Days later, the complainant and his family were called to the archdiocese’s Pastoral Center to testify in the tribunal. One at a time, the man’s mother said, they were called into a conference room to answer the questions of priest judges.

Meanwhile, Foley set up a small law office above a dollar store in a red brick building in downtown Lowell. Its website does not mention that he was ever a priest.

• • •

As the second alleged abuse victim describes it, there were any number of reasons why he didn’t bring an abuse claim to the archdiocese when so many other victims did, in 2002 and 2003. It was a time when he was busy establishing himself in his profession, and in his family life.

He also did not recognize what had happened to him as sexual abuse, he says. He blamed himself for allowing his relationship with Foley to continue for so long, into young adulthood.

But a couple of years ago, the man found himself reading the website of Bishop Accountability, an online archive of the abuse scandal, and came across the first complaint about Foley. It sounded so familiar.

Foley had also approached him gradually, he said in an interview with the Globe, asking the then 12- or 13-year-old boy to show him his developing body, including his genitals.

The second alleged victim came from a large, working-class family. He was highly intelligent, and Foley could talk to him about academics in a way his parents couldn’t. The priest lavished him with attention and advice.

“He was like a teacher, he had real power,” the man said. “Especially because I was really believing all the church stuff.”

Foley began to take him into his private room at the Holy Name rectory and molest him, the man said. He cast the sessions as part of confession, saying they were necessary so that “there are no barriers between us.”

The man recalled standing in Foley’s private sitting room in the rectory one afternoon, staring at a closed door to the hallway, as Foley abused him. He was no more than 13.

“If someone even opens that door a crack,” he says he remembers thinking, “they are going to see me standing right here with no clothes on.”

But no one, he says, ever did.

The abuse persisted for years, the man said, as he grew emotionally dependent on the priest. It continued throughout his time in high school and his years at Harvard.

Foley cultivated this dependency, the man said, by helping to pay for tuition at Harvard, buying him back-to-school clothes, paying for his share of an apartment in Somerville over two summers, advising him on academics and other matters.

“Wasted time,” is what the man now calls his adolescence and young adulthood, his friendly tone taking on a barely perceptible harshness. “You’re 12, 13, 14 years old, and you’ve got this homosexual partner who is quite a bit older than you, controlling you.

“There is no point, after time and therapy, that that turns into a positive,” he said.

The contact finally ended sixmonths after he graduated.

Last summer, the man decided to call Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston lawyer who has represented hundreds of abuse victims, and initiated a complaint about Foley with the archdiocese. He received a settlement with little resistance last May.

“The fact that the archdiocese settled my client’s claim in such a swift manner speaks volumes about how credible they found my client to be,” Garabedian said.

The second complainant began to wonder what had happened to Foley. After discovering the priest’s law office online, he called to see if it was really him. The voice on the other end was unmistakable, he said.

“He says, ‘Well, hello.’ I said, ‘Hey. So you are an attorney now. You have this law practice.’ He says, ‘Yes, I do. ... Is there anything else I can help you with?’

“ ‘No.’ ”


Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.