Former priest, Cheverus teacher due to go on trial on sex assault charges
By Megan Doyle
Portland Press Herald
September 22, 2018
|A former Jesuit priest, James F. Talbot, appears in court last year. He is accused of sexually assaulting a boy nearly 20 years ago in Freeport. Jury selection is set to begin Monday.|
Photo by Ben McCanna
James Talbot is accused of sexually abusing a 9-year-old boy while he was a visiting priest at a Freeport church in the late 1990s.
Michael Doherty remembers the moment he finally saw James Talbot in handcuffs.
Talbot has a history of alleged sexual abuse of children dating to the 1970s at Boston College High School in Massachusetts, then at Cheverus High School in Maine. The former Jesuit priest and teacher has settled lawsuits with more than a dozen victims, including Doherty, who is from Freeport.
But Talbot has been convicted only once. He was never prosecuted in Doherty’s case and many others because the statute of limitations at the time had lapsed. Then, in October 2005, Talbot pleaded guilty to raping and sexually assaulting two students decades before in Boston. When Talbot was taken into custody 13 years ago, Doherty made sure he was in the courtroom.
“It was an important moment,” Doherty said. “There’s a different level of satisfaction than there is in the civil litigation. When I had the ability to see him taken into custody in Boston, it was powerful.”
Now Talbot will answer to criminal charges for the second time.
Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday in Cumberland County in his trial for gross sexual assault and unlawful sexual contact. Neither the prosecutor nor the defense attorney has said whether Talbot will again take a plea deal like he did in 2005. If he does not, legal experts said he could face a challenging trial in the context of the broader sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, because jurors are not supposed to have prior knowledge of a case or past experiences that could create bias.
“Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you do know about it,” said Thea Johnson, an associate professor at the University of Maine School of Law.
ALLEGATIONS REACH BACK FOUR DECADES
A grand jury indicted Talbot on the two felony charges last year. He is accused of sexually abusing a 9-year-old boy on several occasions in the late 1990s at St. Jude Church in Freeport, where Talbot was a visiting priest. Although details about the current allegations have not been made public in criminal case filings, Talbot settled a lawsuit with the same victim last summer. The Press Herald does not name victims of sexual abuse without their consent.
Talbot, now 80, pleaded not guilty to the crimes in December. He then posted $50,000 cash bail and returned to the Vianney Renewal Center in Dittmer, Missouri, a Catholic Church-run residential facility for troubled or former priests, where he has lived since he was released from prison.
Talbot’s attorney, Walter McKee, declined to comment on the case. The prosecutor from the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office did not respond to a request for an interview.
The allegations against Talbot go back four decades. He taught at Boston College High School from 1972 to 1980, when he transferred to Cheverus, in Portland, and remained there until 1998. That year, Doherty came forward to say that Talbot had abused him in the mid-80s, when Doherty was a student at Cheverus. Talbot was fired from the school about two months after the accusations were brought to the bishop.
Doherty settled his lawsuit in 2001. Even though prosecutors could not bring criminal charges, his case prompted others to come forward. By 2003, 14 men had settled lawsuits totaling more than $5.2 million. Two years later, Talbot pleaded guilty to the first criminal charges and ultimately served six years in prison. He was later laicized by the Vatican, which means he is no longer a priest.
HOW MUCH WILL JURORS HEAR OF HIS PAST?
New criminal charges were possible in Maine because the statute of limitations for such crimes against a child younger than 16 was eliminated in 1999 – as long as the statute of limitations had not already expired.
Talbot was one of the priests targeted in The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the church’s abuse scandal, and the 2015 film “Spotlight” includes references to his victims. In a March 2002 article, the Globe reported that Talbot coached wrestling, as well as soccer, at Boston College High and that he engaged in a “bizarre habit” of wrestling with students who were in various stages of undress, including wearing only athletic supporters.
That investigation rocked the Catholic Church across the globe and led to similar findings in other dioceses. Just this year, a sweeping grand jury report in Pennsylvania revealed more than 300 priests sexually abused children over seven decades.
To ensure a fair trial for Talbot, his defense team is likely to try to weed out candidates who have negative feelings about the Catholic Church or Cheverus High School because of past allegations and investigations.
“You have to peel back layers to determine whether or not a jury is going to reflexively condemn someone based on the allegations alone,” said Tina Nadeau, an attorney who also serves at executive director of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Once the jurors are selected, it is unclear how much they would be told about Talbot’s past.
State courts typically do not allow prosecutors to talk during trial about prior convictions for similar crimes, and standards vary across the country for presenting evidence about accusations that have not led to criminal charges.
“The policy rationale is that we don’t want to judge somebody based on their prior bad acts,” Johnson said. “We want to judge them on the facts of this case.”
But Johnson said there are exceptions to that rule. If a defendant testifies at trial, for example, his or her criminal history could be introduced. In other states, other accusers also have been allowed to take the stand to describe a pattern of behavior by the defendant, like the women who testified at Bill Cosby’s most recent sex assault trial.
Stephen Smith, a criminal defense attorney who specializes in sex abuse cases, said he would even ask a judge to exclude evidence about Talbot’s connection to the Catholic Church.
“Once (jurors) heard this person was a former Catholic priest accused of this sort of crime, there may be some prejudices that should not be unleashed,” Smith said.
‘IT’S VALIDATION FOR EVERY VICTIM’
Still, Smith said he almost always prefers to take a sex crime case to a jury trial, rather than a judge at a bench trial. While most people will have a negative gut reaction to allegations of sexual abuse against a child, he said many jurors also have heard about cases in which accusations turn out to be untrue.
“That allows them to consider the possibility of a false allegation,” Smith said.
During the trial, both the prosecution and the defense would need to contend with the amount of time that has passed since the alleged abuse took place.
“That’s a concern for both sides,” Johnson said. “You’re doing this 20 years down the road. How will that affect how people remember things, and how the jury perceives how people remember things?”
Whatever happens, Doherty will be in the courtroom again.
He now lives in Florida, but he was traveling back to Maine this week to support the anonymous victim in this latest case.
“In my case, there was no one,” Doherty said. “The sense that you’re alone is one of the worst things. So that’s really become my focus, to make sure that people don’t feel that they are alone in this process.”
Also present will be Jim Scanlan, one of the victims from Boston College High School whose report of abuse led to the first criminal charges against Talbot. He did not publicly discuss the abuse until late 2015, after viewing the movie “Spotlight.”
Scanlan now lives in Rhode Island. He said the victim in this case should feel pride for bringing Talbot to court.
“It’s validation for every victim, but especially for Talbot’s victims because most don’t get their day in court,” Scanlan said.