A Decade Ago, Priest Abuse Story Rocked Salem
By Tom Dalton
March 24, 2012
Ten years ago tomorrow, James Michael Hogan filed a lawsuit in Suffolk Superior Court that shook the foundations of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.
The 47-year-old former Salem resident, who drove up from Delaware to face the TV cameras and media crowds, detailed sex crimes that were almost unspeakable, committed against him as a young boy.
The former altar boy at St. James Church said he had been sexually abused "hundreds" of times by the Rev. Joseph Birmingham — "Father B" — who served at the Salem parish from 1965 to 1970.
In the days before the story broke, Hogan contacted former schoolmates to let them know that he was stepping out of the shadows.
"He called me as I was going on a ski trip," said Bob Morton, a classmate. "I was going up to Sunday River with a friend. ... I was halfway up when he called. ... He started (telling) the whole thing."
"He called me, too," said Brian Hogan, a cousin. "I remember I went in to Boston and met him; I think it was Quincy Market. He told me about it. ... I didn't know how bad the things were that happened with him until he told me that day."
Bernie McDaid, another former St. James altar boy, also was contacted that weekend.
"I got a call from another kid I'm not supposed to mention," McDaid said. "He said, 'Bernie, I can't do this, but Jamie's coming to Boston', or 'Jamie's now at the lawyer's office in Boston and he will be on the 6 o'clock news.'
"He said, 'Will you consider coming forward, because Jamie's all alone?'"
The Salem News was not able to reach Jamie Hogan this week.
Hogan's act of courage, coming forward at a time when few dared speak of the horrors of sexual abuse inside the Catholic Church, unleashed a flood of emotions that had been buried for more than 30 years.
Several former St. James classmates rallied around Hogan. Old friends like Morton, who said he had only a few "brushes" with Birmingham, stood by his side at press conferences. So did Brian Hogan. Others, like McDaid, joined the lawsuit and revealed their own deep, dark secrets.
Before it was over, more than 40 adult men had become plaintiffs in a legal action against the Archdiocese of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law and Bishop John McCormack, who had served with Birmingham at St. James.
They came not just from St. James, but from other parishes where Birmingham had served in Sudbury, Lowell, Brighton, Lexington and Gloucester.
It turned into one of the worst serial abuse cases in the history of a priest sex abuse scandal that started in Boston and later became a national and world crisis for the Catholic Church.
In a story repeated over and over, the church shut its eyes and turned its back when parents came forward.
In Salem, a group of mothers and the principal of St. James, Sister Grace Kenning, had separately confronted church officials. It was apparently Sister Grace's ultimatum that Birmingham was no longer allowed inside the school that prompted his exit.
The Salem mothers, however, had become aware of the horror only after Birmingham was gone, and after the unsuspecting Salem parish had thrown a going-away party for the departing priest. There was cake, ice cream and good wishes. It was hard for the children to watch.
"I was a boy," McDaid said, "and I never forgot that."
For Birmingham, who died at 54 of cancer, there were no consequences. In 1989, Cardinal Law even presided at his funeral Mass.
After Hogan filed his lawsuit, he returned to Delaware and his young son. Back here, other plaintiffs formed The Survivors of Father Joseph Birmingham, a group that held regular meetings and spoke out on the issue of child sexual abuse.
A few of the men went on national television. McDaid was among a handful of victims who took part in a secret meeting with Pope Benedict XVI during the pontiff's 2008 visit to the United States. McDaid and others have gone all the way to Rome to confront the church over the issue.
The plaintiffs in Boston were paid $80,000 to $300,000 apiece, but a big chunk went to lawyers, McDaid said.
But it was never about the money, he said.
With Jamie Hogan leading the way, a few brave souls stepped forward a decade ago to tell their story. It was an act of unimaginable courage.
"We realized we had to stand up," McDaid said. "But in a way, exposing the problem is to actually expose yourself."