By Speaking up, Abuse Survivors Keep Case Open

By Bill Nemitz
February 25, 2004

AUGUSTA (ME) AUGUSTA - There was a time, not too long ago, when Michael Doherty would not have been caught dead in this situation. Telling the authorities that a priest molested you is one thing, telling the world is quite another.

Yet there he stood Tuesday in the office of Maine Attorney General Steven Rowe, facing the cameras and microphones for the first time ever. Sure he was nervous, he later admitted, but in the end he had no choice.

"When you get out of a hole," Doherty, 35, said with a smile, "you have an obligation to help the next guy behind you get out of the hole."

In other words, for Doherty and the dozens of others scarred by priests who could not control their sexual demons, Maine's so-called "church scandal" did not end with the release of Rowe's report explaining what happened and why nobody can do anything about it. Doherty knows better than most that for many survivors - he no longer calls himself a "victim" - this is only the beginning.

Two years after Rowe and Maine's eight district attorneys began poring over 75 years of the Diocese of Portland's deepest, darkest secrets, nobody expected the AG's final report to contain anything even close to a criminal indictment. Of the 63 Catholic priests or lay employees accused of molesting children, Rowe said, 20 are dead and the rest (not counting five who have been charged over the years) now hide behind expired statutes of limitations.

Still, Tuesday's press conference contained two noteworthy developments.

One was Rowe's long-awaited assertion that while the Diocese of Portland's hierarchy never broke the law, its "failure to notify its parishioners of the allegations . . . placed children and adolescents at risk of abuse."

He even offered an example: In 1958, the parents of a 6-year-old girl alleged that their priest had abused their daughter. The diocese shuffled the priest off to another parish and told him to keep his hands off "minor girls," but failed to alert the parishioners to keep their daughters away from him.

"Notwithstanding the restrictions imposed on the priest by the Diocese, 10 women came forward after the priest's death (in 1990) and reported that he had sexually abused them as children and adolescents from 1960 through 1972," Rowe said. "The victims ranged from eight years to 13 years of age at the time of the abuse."

Which leads us to the second - and infinitely more uplifting - message behind the AG's report: Much as the church scandal is a story of depravity, so is it one of triumph.

"I want to acknowledge and thank the victims who have come forward to report their abuse as children by adults in positions of authority," Rowe said.

As he spoke, Doherty and a handful of other survivors stood quietly off to one side. They had already seen the report during a one-hour sit-down with Rowe and Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson - and even then their work wasn't done.

Doherty noticed a line stating that after 1997, the diocese stopped inserting confidentiality clauses in its settlements with survivors. Not so, he told Rowe: His 2001 settlement - he alleged that he was molested by the Rev. James Talbot of Cheverus High School in the late 1980s - came with a gag order that remains in place to this day.

The line was deleted - delaying the press conference by 20 minutes while AG staffers hurriedly repackaged the report.

Doherty is still waiting for Talbot to go on trial in Massachusetts on charges that he molested other boys while teaching at Boston College High School. But his primary concern these days, he said, is to convince others who were abused by priests (or any other adults, for that matter) that you can't heal if you don't talk about it.

"That's why I'm here," he said. "I have to do my part."

Rowe, who at times couldn't hide his frustration as he declared this criminal investigation closed, did all he could to find justice where none exists. That leaves only one moral to this horror story: Without survivors like Michael Doherty, there would have been no investigation, no report, no warning that people - even priests - sometimes aren't who they appear to be.

Glancing toward Doherty and his companions, Rowe noted, "I think they're people of great courage."


Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.