One Diocese's Early Warning on Sex Abuse
'50s Records Reflect Bishops Taking Risks
By Alan Cooperman
April 22, 2003
[Note: Links to the referenced documents from the New Hampshire Attorney
General's archive were added by BishopAccountability.org.]
When he learned that one of his priests was preying on teenage girls,
Bishop Matthew F. Brady of Manchester, N.H., yanked the man out of ministry.
Then he wrote letter after letter -- at least 15 in all -- warning other
bishops not to let the priest back into parish work.
Considering how many Roman Catholic bishops have quietly transferred sexual
abusers to new parishes, Brady's stand was notable. But what's really
startling is the year he took it: 1957.
Brady's letters are among 9,000 pages of documents made public by New
Hampshire's attorney general at the end of a grand jury investigation
The correspondence makes clear that sexual abuse by priests did not begin
with the "sexual revolution" in American life in the 1960s,
as some Catholics have maintained. By the 1950s, the New Hampshire files
show, U.S. bishops had a lot of experience with the problem.
But the Brady documents reveal much more. They contain evidence, in confidential
messages between bishops, that a shortage of priests sometimes led Catholic
officials to accept the calculated risk of keeping sex offenders in ministry.
They also disprove the contention that church leaders were unaware until
recently that pedophilia is difficult, if not impossible, to cure. The
advice Brady received from the nation's first treatment center for troubled
priests, Via Coeli in Jemez Springs, N.M., was that priests who had molested
minors were unlikely to change.
"[W]e have adopted a definite policy not to recommend to Bishops
men of this character," Via Coeli's founder, the Rev. Gerald Fitzgerald,
informed Brady in September 1957. "We feel that the protection of
our glorious priesthood will demand, in time, the establishment of a uniform
code of discipline and of penalties. We are amazed to find how often a
man who would be behind bars if he were not a priest is entrusted with
the cura animarum [care of souls]." [See the full
text of Fitzgerald's 9/26/57 letter.]
In later decades, bishops sent hundreds of priests to Jemez Springs and
other church-run centers for psychological evaluation and treatment, then
recycled many of them into parishes without informing parishioners or
police. Lawsuits and bad publicity forced the Jemez Springs facility to
stop treating sexual disorders in 1994.
Paul R. McHugh, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University
who serves on the National Review Board established by U.S. bishops to
examine the sexual abuse scandal, said the Brady letters may help answer
"the big questions" about its causes and scope.
"What we want to know is: Has this kind of abuse always been endemic
in the church, and the only thing that changed is our interest in it?"
he said. "Or was it an epidemic that occurred in the 1970s and '80s
as a result of lapses by bishops who failed to recognize these crimes
for what they are?"
McHugh said the New Hampshire files suggest the answer is a bit of both:
Sexual abuse has long existed in the priesthood, but the problem was compounded
by a shortage of priests and overconfidence in psychological treatment.
"I do think that in the '60s and '70s and right up until the early
'80s, there was an optimism about therapy that was unfounded," he
said. "What Brady and Fitzgerald were saying in the '50s is far more
like the comments people would make today."
Ultimately, however, the meaning of the New Hampshire files may be unclear
until other dioceses open their records and it becomes known whether Brady
was representative of his peers.
David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused
by Priests, said he has seen no evidence that other bishops in the '50s
acted as Brady did. "From the victims I've spoken to and the cases
I know about, the general attitude back then was that [sexual abuse] was
a moral failing, a sin that someone could just renounce," he said.
The Rev. Steve Rossetti, a psychologist who heads St. Luke Institute in
Silver Spring, which treats priests for sexual and emotional disorders,
said he believes that many bishops took similar stands. "In the last
year, the press has done a good job of making public some dastardly cases,
extreme cases, in which the church has been grossly negligent. But it
has not been fair, frankly, in giving the public an accurate understanding
of how the church has dealt with hundreds of cases," Rossetti said.
Matthew Francis Brady became bishop of Manchester in 1944 and served until
his death in 1959. Tall and physically imposing, with a full head of silver
hair, he was "direct, forceful, occasionally blunt, and generally
unapproachable," according to a history of the diocese by one of
In 1949, records show, the diocese received its first serious complaint
about the Rev. John T. Sullivan. Neighbors reported that the priest, then
32, had a "close association" with a teenager who was hospitalized
after an attempted abortion. Although the girl signed an affidavit saying
Sullivan had nothing to do with her pregnancy, he admitted responsibility
to his superiors and secretly paid her bills. [See the full
text of the first complaint and Bishop
Brady's reference to Sullivan's admission.]
In 1952, Sullivan got into trouble again. Accused of stalking a nursing
student, he attempted suicide by inhaling car exhaust. [See the accounts
of the suicide
attempt and the stalking.]
Then, in 1956, Sullivan was involved in another murky pregnancy and illegal
abortion. In confidential memos, a well-connected priest kept Brady apprised
of the police inquiry. Although the abortionist was sent to prison, "no
other names" came out in court, and the district attorney "silenced
the investigators" to avoid scandal, the memos said.
A few weeks later, Brady suspended
Sullivan indefinitely and ordered him to move out of a rectory. It was
around this time that the bishop contacted Fitzgerald, founder of the
Servants of the Paraclete, a religious order dedicated to caring for troubled
"I have in the diocese, what is an old story to you, a problem priest
for whom I am at a loss to find a place to serve. . . . His problem is
not drink but a series of scandal-causing escapades with young girls,"
Brady wrote. He added that Sullivan appeared to be sincerely remorseful,
and that "the solution of his problem seems to be a fresh start in
some diocese where he is not known." [See the full
text of Brady's 9/23/57 letter to Fitzgerald.]
Fitzgerald would have none of it. Noting that "I have my own soul
to save," he replied that Sullivan could come to the New Mexico monastery
-- but only if he was willing to live there permanently, with no hope
of returning to parish work.
"From our long experience with characters of this type . . . their
repentance and amendment is superficial," Fitzgerald wrote. "A
new diocese means only green pastures." [See the full
text of Fitzgerald's 9/26/57 letter.]
Brady clearly took the message to heart. He gave Sullivan a choice: Leave
the priesthood or move permanently to the New Mexico monastery. But the
priest decided, instead, to apply on his own to bishops across the country.
Sullivan's letters begging for another chance drew many inquiries and
several immediate job offers. For two years, Brady bluntly warned fellow
bishops not to take the risk.
"My conscience will not allow me to recommend him to any Bishop and
I feel that every inquiring Bishop should know some of the circumstances
that range from parenthood, through violation of the Mann Act, attempted
suicide and abortion," he wrote again and again. [See the full
text of Brady's 12/6/57 letter to Bishop John J. Carberry of Lafayette
The correspondence reflects the huge need for priests in an era when the
church was rapidly adding parishes. Even after learning that Sullivan
had been in trouble in New Hampshire, many bishops were willing to give
him a chance but wanted to know more about his case.
"Our need of priests . . . is really acute at this time. I am disposed
to give Father Sullivan a trial," the bishop of Fort Wayne, Ind.,
wrote in 1958. "Naturally I do so with reluctance and misgiving."
[See the full
text of the 1/7/58 letter from Bishop Leo A. Pursley to Brady.]
After Brady provided stark details of Sullivan's misconduct, most bishops
changed their minds, noting their familiarity with sexual abuse of minors.
"I had thought [Sullivan's] trouble was with women; those who fiddle
around with the young never seem to be cured," the bishop of Burlington,
Vt., wrote in 1957. [See the
full text of Bishop Robert T. Joyce's 10/21/57 letter to Brady.]
"Your Excellency will readily understand that I have had my own share
of problems of this kind during the twelve years of my episcopate and
that I am not looking for additional trouble," the archbishop of
Milwaukee wrote in 1958. [See the full
text of then-Archbishop Albert G. Meyer's 1/31/58 letter to Brady.]
After Brady's death, his successor, Ernest J. Primeau, continued to warn
bishops about Sullivan. But the priest eventually found work in Michigan
[Grand Rapids diocese], Wisconsin [LaCrosse diocese], Texas [Amarillo
diocese], New Mexico [Gallup diocese] and Arizona [Phoenix diocese]. He
was quickly chased out of some dioceses -- one bishop [Allen J. Babcock
of Grand Rapids MI] called him a "psychopath" -- but served
in others for years. [See the full
text of Babcock's 4/4/60 letter to Chancellor Hansberry of Manchester.]
After retiring from the Phoenix diocese in 1982, Sullivan moved back to
New Hampshire. In a final coda to his career, he was stripped of his faculties
to serve as a priest after he kissed a 13-year-old girl in Laconia, N.H.,
in 1983, when he was 66. He died in 1999, never having faced a criminal
charge. [See Bishop Odore
J. Gendron's letter withdrawing faculties and a memo
describing Chancellor Christian's knowledge of the case.]
In recent years, more victims have come forward. The diocese of Grand
Rapids paid $561,000 in the early 1990s to three sisters who said Sullivan
abused them when they were between 7 and 12 years old.
Pat Poling, 53, a hospital worker in Biloxi, Miss., alleges that Sullivan
raped her in Amarillo, Tex., in 1961, when she was 11. She received a
bit more than $10,000 in a settlement in the mid-1990s, a sum her lawyer
contends is grossly inadequate in light of the New Hampshire documents.
Poling said in an interview that she read Sullivan's file for the first
time last week, and it "floored me, just absolutely floored me."
"I couldn't believe it had gone on that long and that all the bishops
knew about it, and they were so open and frank with each other,"
she said. "I think they knew then exactly what they know now."