Church Backed Tainted Ex-Priest
Archdiocese Hired Lawyer for Molester While He Was in Jail
By Sue Reinert
January 31, 2002
The Archdiocese of Boston helped a former priest defend himself against sexual abuse lawsuits even though he had already been convicted of molesting a young boy.
At the time the church intervened on his behalf, Robert M. Burns had apparently resigned from the priesthood and was serving time in a New Hampshire state prison.
Burns, who according to police in Salem, N.H., might have molested as many as 16 children while he was a priest in Boston and Youngstown, Ohio, was sued by three Charlestown men who said he assaulted them when they were children.
Burns was a priest at St. Mary's Church in Charlestown from 1986 to 1991.
Boston lawyer Timothy P. O'Neill told The Patriot Ledger that church officials asked him to represent Burns in the lawsuits.
Asked who paid him, O'Neill first said the church did, then said he did not remember.
Archdiocese spokeswoman Donna Morrissey said yesterday she does not know Burns' current status as a priest or why the church arranged for his defense.
She said she will answer questions about the case when she knows more.
The suits filed by the three Charlestown men named as defendants the Boston Archdiocese;
Cardinal Bernard Law; the Rev. James B. Canniff, pastor of St. Mary's Church; the diocese and bishop of Youngstown; and Burns.
O'Neill said he was hired because having the same lawyer represent Burns and the Archdiocese would be a conflict of interest.
He said he did little work on the cases because the church intended to settle them.
"It wasn't a typical case which would have generated a substantial amount of work and fees," O'Neill said.
He said he did not know the terms of the settlements, which were not included in court papers.
"The only part (of the settlement) I would get was that Burns was being released from any further liability," he said.
Charlestown lawyer Timothy P. O'Connell, who represented the three men, declined to comment.
Burns was served with papers in one of the lawsuits in 1998, while he was in prison. O'Neill said he did not know why Burns had been jailed.
Burns allegedly had a long history of molesting children before he faced his first criminal charge in 1996.
He served as a priest in Youngstown during the 1970s. In 1981, Youngstown church officials sent him to a center in Worcester for treatment for sexually abusing children, according to the lawsuits.
He continued to molest children when he returned to Youngstown, the suits say.
Between 1982 and 1985, Burns was transferred to Boston by "arrangement" between Bishop James Malone of Youngstown and the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Humberto Medeiros, the suits say.
Both church leaders have died. Church officials in Youngstown did not respond to a request for comment.
Burns allegedly continued his pattern of molesting children at St. Thomas Church in Jamaica Plain, where he served in 1985, and at St. Mary's.
In 1991, church officials removed Burns from St. Mary's and sent him for treatment in Maryland, the suits said.
According to New Hampshire officials, Burns said he resigned from the priesthood in 1991.
After being removed from St. Mary's and sent for treatment, Burns worked as a manager at the Copley Inn in Boston's Back Bay, he told New Hampshire authorities.
Officials of the 21-room hotel did not return a telephone call yesterday.
Burns held the job until he was charged with sexually assaulting a Salem, N.H., boy in 1995, said New Hampshire Parole Board Director John Eckert. The victim was younger than 13, but his exact age was not made public.
Records show that Burns had an apartment in Salem and assaulted the child there after luring the boy with the promise of letting him play with a computer, Eckert said. However, Burns listed the hotel address as his home when he was arrested, Eckert said.
In March 1996, Burns pleaded guilty to aggravated felonious sexual assault and was sentenced to four to eight years in state prison.
He was released from prison in 1999 and will be on parole until 2004.
According to a 1996 Associated Press report about the case, Salem police had a report from the psychologist who treated Burns in 1991, saying the former priest had admitted molesting 16 boys in Youngstown and Boston between 1976 and 1990.
Salem police knew of two lawsuits filed against Burns, one in 1990 in Ohio and one in 1992 from Massachusetts, that were settled for $111,000 to $121,000. Both complaints were sealed.
A former spokesman for the Boston Archdiocese told the Associated Press that church officials knew of Burns' problems "prior to his stay in this area" but did not "have a complete grasp of all the implications of the pathology of sexual abuse."
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