Cheverus victims seek the justice they never received
By Eric Russell
December 17, 2017
|"It dogs you your whole life," says John Clark of Portland, who has alleged he was sexually abused by Charles Malia, a former teacher and coach at Cheverus High School. Malia's victims have never been offered settlements and have no power to pursue justice through the courts. |
Photo by Ben McCanna
|Cheverus High School in Portland |
Photo by Patrick Ouellette
|Cheverus High School’s former track coach, Charles Malia, left, works with the team in the spring of 1998. Over the years, a dozen former students have said Malia molested them, though not all have come forward publicly. Because Maine’s statute of limitations at the time had lapsed, Malia couldn’t be charged or sued. |
Photo by Gordon Chibroski
|The school’s initial response to allegations of abuse spurred Paul Kendrick of Freeport to advocate for the victims of Charles Malia. |
At Cheverus, they were taught moral responsibility, but victims of alleged abuse by a former teacher say they're still waiting for the school and the Jesuit community to practice what they preach.
When Michael Sweatt looked at his son’s schedule and saw the familiar name of a teacher, he went to the school and demanded his son be removed from that class.
Cheverus officials balked at first, he said, until Sweatt revealed that the teacher, Charles Malia, abused him back in the mid-1970s.
Sweatt said the response from the school’s then-president, John Mullen, was, “Why would you enroll your son here?”
“My response was: Because I know where the pedophile is in the building,” Sweatt said. “I don’t know where he is at Deering or Portland.”
Since that day in 1997, a dozen former Cheverus students have come forward saying Malia molested them.
But Malia wasn’t alone.
Just last month, another former Cheverus employee who was a Jesuit priest when he sexually abused students at the school was charged with a new crime – sexually assaulting a 9-year-old boy in Freeport 20 years ago.
For Sweatt and other victims, the re-emergence of James Francis Talbot in the news is a reminder of the justice they never got from the school in Portland. While a few victims of Talbot received civil settlements, Malia’s victims have never been offered settlements and have no power to go to court.
Cheverus, which has influential alumni all over the state and a board of trustees made up of powerful executives, lawyers and others, has only ever settled with alleged victims when it faced the possibility of a lawsuit. Although the school – founded on the Jesuit principles of justice and conscience – said it has compassion for all victims, it still has not addressed a simple question: Does Cheverus have a moral obligation to compensate victims of abuse even though it’s not legally required to do so?
Cheverus President Bob Pecoraro, in a Dec. 7 interview at his office, addressed the past abuse that involved two former teachers, although not specifically. He said Cheverus can’t run from its history but he also sought to look forward.
“If you were to ask any of our history teachers, they would say that to forget history is to repeat history. So, I don’t think this is something that will ever be closed or put away,” said Pecoraro, who has been president only since June and has no prior history at the school. “It happened a long time ago and we’ve put a lot of safeguards in since then so that Cheverus is a different school today.”
Cheverus, which enrolls about 400 students, is indeed different now. For one, it’s coeducational. And the offending teachers have long since left. And, as Pecoraro said, the school has made changes in hiring practices and in protocol for reporting incidents.
When posed a question, though, about whether the school has any moral obligation to compensate Malia victims, Pecoraro refused to answer. Through a school representative, he said, “Those questions … have been asked and answered for several years.”
Members of the Cheverus board of trustees have no interest in discussing Talbot, Malia or the part of the school’s history the two men represent. Over the last two weeks, the Maine Sunday Telegram has called or emailed – sometimes both – 18 of 20 trustees. Few responded. Those who did declined to answer questions and instead deferred to the school’s statement.
Spencer Thibodeau, a 2006 graduate and Portland city councilor, was the only one who returned a message. He said he didn’t know enough about the school’s history to speak to it and has recently stopped attending trustee meetings after being targeted by critics of its decision not to compensate all the victims.
Victims said the collective silence among trustees is telling, and disheartening.
Sweatt said Cheverus – as well as the Jesuits, the religious order within the Catholic Church that oversees it – has “abdicated responsibility.” Instead of helping victims heal, he said, they have focused on spin control and protecting the school’s image.
“They seem to always want to split hairs and assume the least amount of responsibility that they can get away with legally,” he said of his alma mater. “Morally, they are bankrupt. Absolutely bankrupt.”
John Clark, another Malia victim, said his life has been forever altered.
“You know, the act of the abuse itself is minimal compared to the trail of devastation that follows,” he said recently from his home on Munjoy Hill in Portland. “It dogs you your whole life.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF COMPENSATION
The abuse allegations against the two former Cheverus teachers first surfaced publicly in 1997.
Over the years, a dozen former Cheverus students said Malia molested them, although not all have been public.
The former track coach was never charged or sued because Maine had a statute of limitations then. However, Malia acknowledged to a Telegram reporter in 2000 that he abused boys. Without offering specifics, he said he had “some guilt” about it. He still lives in Greater Portland. Sweatt said he saw him only a few weeks ago at a coffee shop.
The statute of limitations for abuse charges has since been changed – in large part because Malia’s victims lobbied the Legislature. But they will never benefit.
In 2007, Maine lawmakers debated legislation that would have created a “look-back window,” or a finite period of time where victims of abuse could come forward no matter how long ago the abuse happened. That effort failed, even though other states have passed similar bills.
Mitchell Garabedian, the Boston attorney who has represented numerous abuse victims and was featured prominently in The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series that uncovered the Catholic Church abuse scandal in Massachusetts and beyond, represented eight of Malia’s victims. Clark was one of them. So was his brother, Steve.
Since they have come forward, Clark said the greater Cheverus community has shunned his family.
Both brothers have struggled. John Clark said his brother has been hospitalized for mental illness related to the abuse he suffered.
John Clark, a photographer, has stayed out of the hospital but his life hasn’t been easy. He’s lost jobs. His wife left him seven years ago.
“Everything is like moving through quicksand in life,” Clark said. “I did some counseling. I had to fight just to get that, but it only gets you so far. They cut you open on the table and then you have to walk around all week with an open wound.”
Clark said the school did pay for counseling, but only after he fought for it.
“If they had to be forced into doing the right thing, is that really doing the right thing?” he said.
Compensation is an uncomfortable topic for victims, but it’s important, Garabedian said, because it’s an acknowledgment to them that their lives have been greatly affected.
He said Cheverus has had the chance to do the right thing and has failed continuously.
Six years ago, at Garabedian’s urging, the school entertained discussions about possible compensation with victims only to walk away.
Clark said it was “like being invited to a dinner table with no meal served.”
Melissa Hewey, the school’s attorney, later said that there simply wasn’t enough money to offer settlements and that Cheverus’ insurance policy wouldn’t cover it.
DEFENSE STRATEGY: CREATE DISTANCE
Just as Malia was brought down by allegations from former students, so was Talbot. In his case, it was former Cheverus student and Freeport resident Michael Doherty, who now lives in Florida.
Doherty said Talbot, who in addition to teaching at Cheverus also served as a priest in the parish that included Freeport, befriended his family, earned their trust and then molested him on multiple occasions.
Doherty settled with the school, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland and the Jesuits in 2001 for an undisclosed sum but he said he’s not sure Cheverus has ever fully accepted responsibility. He agreed with Sweatt that the school seemed more focused on protecting its image than healing victims like him.
The starkest example of that came during his lawsuit.
Hewey, Cheverus’ attorney, petitioned to remove the school from the suit – arguing that the statute of limitations had passed. It didn’t work.
About 15 years later, after another Talbot victim filed a lawsuit, Hewey again tried to distance Cheverus from the abuse. The victim in that suit has not been identified publicly. In her motion last year, Hewey wrote that although Talbot was a Cheverus teacher, the victim in that case was not a student and the abuse didn’t happen on campus.
“As a matter of law, Cheverus owed no duty of care to plaintiff because it has no special relationship with plaintiff,” she wrote.
In Doherty’s case and the more recent one, attorneys representing the diocese and the Jesuits each tried to distance the institutions from Talbot.
In the same suit, the diocese also tried to distance itself from Talbot, saying that he was under the authority of the Jesuits and not assigned to a specific parish when the abuse occurred. So even though the alleged abuse took place in a diocesan parish and church, Talbot was the Jesuits’ to deal with.
The Jesuits, as they have done when past allegations surfaced, maintained that although Talbot was under their authority, they didn’t control where he went or what he did.
In each instance, the message to the victim was: You’re on your own.
“Talbot is a serial pedophile,” said Garabedian, who also has represented some of his victims. “He is the poster boy for a diocese knowing someone was an abuser, yet they allowed him to abuse.
“And his abuse was open and notorious. It wasn’t in a closet somewhere or a hidden room, it was out in the open. Students used to talk about him. If they were talking about it, how could teachers not know?”
Ultimately, though, the judge did not allow any of the institutions to be removed from the most recent suit. When it came time to settle, each was involved, although it’s not clear who paid or how much.
Clark said when he sees statements from the school about encouraging victims to come forward, he always thinks about this. They only settled because they had to, not because they wanted to do the right thing.
‘PROTECT THE BIG C’
Cheverus’ initial response to the claims of abuse by Malia is what spurred Paul Kendrick, a 1968 graduate, to become an advocate. He was never a victim himself but knew of others.
To this day, Kendrick, along with another former graduate, Thomas Kane, Class of 1964, have regularly sent letters to Cheverus officials and trustees imploring them to reconsider their decision with regards to Malia’s victims.
They also have led protests at the school and have encouraged victims like Sweatt and Clark to speak up.
Kendrick, whose relentless, in-your-face style has not earned him any sympathy from Cheverus brass, recently has been pushing for the creation of a compensation fund by the school for Malia victims. He said the school may never have a legal obligation to provide them with anything, but he argued that the moral responsibility will always be there.
Three Catholic dioceses in New York so far have created an Independent Compensation and Reconciliation Program to offer abuse victims monetary settlements, including those who have no power to file lawsuits.
Since the Archdiocese of New York launched its program in 2016, 145 settlements have been made, The New York Times reported in October. Another 81 claims are being considered.
Maine has only one diocese, based in Portland, that covers the entire state.
Dave Guthro, a spokesman for the diocese, has referred all questions about abuse at Cheverus to the school or to the Jesuits. Cheverus is not technically under the diocesan umbrella, although it is run by the Jesuits.
Michael Benigno, a spokesman for the Jesuits’ northeast province, declined to answer any questions about Talbot, or Malia or Cheverus, citing the open criminal case involving Talbot. He did not answer questions about whether the Jesuits had a moral responsibility to compensate Malia victims or whether they would consider a compensation fund.
Others schools with histories of abuse have created victim funds.
In 2001, around the same time the church abuse scandal erupted publicly, Maine lawmakers created a compensation fund for victims of abuse at the former state-run Baxter School for the Deaf, on Mackworth Island. They set aside $6 million, which ran out quickly. Lawmakers budgeted more, eventually topping out at $17 million.
Cheverus is not a public institution, but Sweatt, a general manager for Maine Standards Co. in Cumberland, said its alumni have deep pockets. He doesn’t expect anyone to approve using that money to aid victims, though.
“Those of us who have spoken up, we’re pariahs,” he said. “For everyone else it’s: Protect the Big C.”
NEVER ASKED: ‘HOW CAN WE HELP?’
Pecoraro, who admittedly hasn’t been present for any of the school’s history or its response, said the school has instituted a number of changes, including a more rigorous screening process for employees and the training all teachers and staff now must complete. There also is a more open process for students to report allegations.
Asked whether the criticism that persists about whether the Cheverus community has done enough for its victims is fair, Pecoraro said, “I think there are folks that have their own mission.”
Pecoraro didn’t mention anyone by name but seemed to be referring to Kendrick, who has been a thorn in Cheverus’ side for years.
That may be why Cheverus trustees have avoided talking publicly, too.
The only member of the Cheverus trustees who returned a call from the Telegram was the 2006 graduate, Thibodeau, who is also a local attorney.
Thibodeau, because he’s a public figure, has been targeted by Kendrick and Kane recently for his silence. He said he didn’t wish to talk about the past allegations. He said there may have been discussion by past trustees about how to address some of this but he’s not aware of them.
Thibodeau also said since he’s been targeted by Kendrick, he’s stopped going to trustee meetings. He said he doesn’t want to blur the lines between his status as a trustee and his role as a city councilor.
In addition to Thibodeau, trustees include, among others: Chairman Edward Haley, an account manager with Hewlett Packard in Boston; Geoffrey Baur, a senior finance director at Idexx; Peggy Cianchette, who owns the Portland Regency; Walter Pochebit, a vice president at Maine Medical Center; Vicki Mann, the chief finance officer for Lee Auto Malls; Peter Bearor, an executive with IBM Global; John Mann Jr., chief executive for Tyler Technologies; Jonathan Smith, president of Great Falls Construction; and Michael Sheehan, an attorney with PretiFlaherty, one of Portland’s top law firms.
Sweatt and Clark both said if there was one thing they were taught at Cheverus it was moral responsibility and justice. How could that same institution, and the people who serve as its trustees, not look in the mirror?
For Clark, he doesn’t know if there is anything the school could do to make his life whole. He said he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to speak out again.
Struggling to keep from breaking down, he said he did so for his brother, whose mental state has deteriorated to the point where he’s writing letters to his parents, who have been dead for years. He spoke out again for the other victims, the ones who haven’t or won’t come forward, for various reasons.
“I didn’t speak up for myself, I spoke up because it was the right thing to do,” he said through tears.
It’s not known how many other former Cheverus students may carry the scars from abuse by Malia and Talbot.
Talbot has settled with 15 victims, including three in Maine and 12 who were victimized while he taught at Boston College High School.
But during a parole hearing in 2009, one of Talbot’s victims from Boston, Jim Scanlan, said he heard the Jesuit priest make a startling claim, that he may have as many as 88 or 89 victims. It wasn’t clear how many of those were in Maine.
The Massachusetts Parole Board confirmed that Talbot was up for parole in 2009 but said it could not provide minutes or a transcript or an audio recording of that hearing.
Sweatt and Clark said there could be more Malia victims, too.
Sweatt said he doesn’t have hope that Cheverus will ever change its mind.
“When people like me die off, there aren’t that many following this that are going to carry it on,” he said.
Clark has a sliver of hope. He sees the statements from the school about trying to help victims heal and wants to believe it.
“They say, ‘Oh, you have to reach out,’ but then every time you do, they pull their hand away,” Clark said. “At this point, I don’t even care if I get a pile of money, but you could at least help me navigate my life. There has never been any true attempt to include us in any healing process. They have never asked, ‘How can we help your life?’ ”