Man Drops Claim against Two Priests
By Sacha Pfeiffer and Michael Rezendes
September 4, 2002
mid growing doubts about the credibility of his charges, a Winchendon man yesterday withdrew a lawsuit accusing two Boston priests of sexual abuse, and prosecutors for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley are reviewing the case for evidence of criminal conduct in filing a possibly unfounded claim.
The suit by Paul R. Edwards, 35, was dismissed "with prejudice, waiving all rights of appeal," meaning it cannot be refiled. That can be taken as an indication, one legal observer said, that the allegations leveled on Aug. 14 were probably false.
Edwards had accused Monsignor Michael Smith Foster, the archdiocese's top canon lawyer, and the Rev. William J. Cummings, who died in 1994, of abusing him as a Newton teenager in the early 1980s.
Foster said in a Globe interview yesterday that he was relieved by the turn of events and eager to return to his post. But he also said the handling of his case shows the Boston archdiocese's 1993 policy for dealing with abuse allegations is "defective."
"This has not hurt my faith in God, my faith in my religion, my faith in people, or my faith in the church," said Foster, speaking at the Boston public relations firm he retained after he was accused, accompanied by two of his lawyers. "But it certainly raises questions deep within me about the institution and the institutional church.'
Foster said he sent church officials a letter yesterday formally notifying them that the lawsuit had been withdrawn and asking that he be restored to his position of judicial vicar. Foster also said he had agreed to sign a "mutual release" verifying that no money changed hands in exchange for the suit's withdrawal, and that he would not countersue Edwards for making the allegations.
Foster said he agreed not to bring a civil claim against Edwards "because the sad reality is there have been too many victims, and I don't think anything should prevent anyone who's truly been victimized from coming forward, and the threat of a countersuit can scare people."
But the possibility that Edwards's allegations are unfounded will be reviewed by the Suffolk district attorney. "We are reviewing the case to determine if there's evidence of criminal conduct," said David Procopio, a spokesman for the district attorney.
Foster was placed on administrative leave by the archdiocese a few days after Edwards filed his suit asserting Foster had molested him in his rectory room at Sacred Heart parish in Newton several times between 1980 and 1985.
Shortly after the allegations were made public, parents who were active in the two parishes, responding to inquiries from the Globe, raised questions about the truthfulness of Edwards's account. They noted, for example, that Sacred Heart had a strict policy barring visitors from the second floor of the rectory, where Foster had his room. They also attacked Edwards's contention that he was abused by Cummings, then a priest at Our Lady Help of Christians parish in Newton, on an overnight field trip to New York City. It was, they said, a day trip.
Meanwhile, acquaintances of Edwards portrayed him as a person with a long history of embellishments, including false claims that he was deaf, that he was encouraged to play semipro hockey by two pro hockey stars, and that he had a role in the movie "Jaws."
Neither Edwards nor his lawyer, Eric J. Parker, returned calls for comment yesterday. But last week, citing concerns about the case, Parker filed a motion to withdraw as Edwards's lawyer, prompting Suffolk Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney to order both men to appear before her in court this morning. That hearing was canceled as a result of yesterday's withdrawal, and consequent dismissal, of the suit.
The Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said that he and other church officials were pleased that the suit against Foster and the archdiocese has been dismissed. But he said the action should not in any way diminish the legitimate claims of clergy sexual misconduct.
"I'm pleased for Monsignor Foster; we all are. But I would not want this to cast any kind of cloud on victims who have suffered clergy abuse," Coyne said.
Coyne said church officials must review the dismissal of Edwards's claims before considering whether to reinstate Foster.
Foster said he was notified on Aug. 15 by an aide to Cardinal Bernard F. Law that an allegation had been made against him. He met with church officials at the chancery for three hours on Aug. 18 and at the end of that meeting voluntarily asked that he be placed on administrative leave.
Foster declined to discuss his exact conversations with church officials. But he said that after being accused he quickly assembled a four-person legal team - three private civil attorneys and one canon law specialist - because "I just knew what I was up against."
"I knew I had to act and act quickly," said Foster, whose canon law focus is children's rights and children's welfare. "I had been accused of an absolutely horrific, horrendous crime. There can't be anything worse to be accused of."
"Something like this rocks you to your foundation," he added, "but from day one I've had an inner sense of calm and peace because I knew the accusations were false. But that doesn't diminish your feelings - your feelings of frustration and anger and bewilderment and discouragement."
Foster, who said he remembers Edwards as a "good kid," said he had maintained contact with Edwards and his family over the years, officiating at Edwards's first marriage and at Edwards's sister's marriage. But he could not speculate on why Edwards made his allegation of sexual misconduct.
"It came as a complete surprise to me," Foster said.
Foster said he recalled Edwards when he was a teenager claiming, falsely, that he had lost his hearing. "Paul was a kid who would tell tales," Foster said. "Some of them seemed harmless. However, here we are 22 years later and this was not harmless."
Arnold R. Rosenfeld, former head of the state board that oversees the conduct of lawyers, said lawsuits are typically withdrawn with prejudice when a private settlement has been reached or a plaintiff agrees to rescind his allegations if a defendant agrees not to countersue.
But given the public blows to Edwards's credibility and the apparent factual inaccuracies in his allegations, "in all likelihood, the fact that he's withdrawn this with prejudice indicates, I think, that most people would think that it's because it's not a true allegation," Rosenfeld said.
Linda Amicangioli, a marketing and public relations consultant in London who knew Foster when she was a teenager, said she was overjoyed by the dismissal of the lawsuit.
"I'm very, very happy. I've had a good cry of joy and now I'm just ecstatic, wishing I was in Boston," she said. "I feel that justice has finally been done."
Amicangioli, who rallied former members of the Newton youth group to Foster's defense, also expressed sympathy for Edwards. "My only wish for Paul is that he finally get the help he needs," Amicangioli said. "My heart goes out to his family for everything he's put them through."
Now, Amicangioli added, she and others who have defended Foster are looking to the archdiocese to follow through on a commitment to restore the reputation of any priest falsely accused of sexual misconduct.
"He's a credit to the archdiocese, and this has hurt him tremendously," Amicangioli said. "I hope they reinstate him immediately and do everything he needs to get his reputation back."
Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at email@example.com.
Michael Rezendes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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