Boston Abuse Reports Reverberate in Bergen
Parochial School Teacher Convicted in Montvale
By John Chadwick
February 17, 2003
One day in 1988, a Roman Catholic brother stood in a Bergen County courtroom and pleaded guilty to molesting a student.
John H. Dagwell was promptly fired from the Montvale parochial school where he had been a teacher and a coach for 20 years.
A judge sentenced him to probation and ordered him to stay away from children. And Dagwell's religious order transferred him to Milton, Mass.
But Dagwell quietly rebuilt his career in nearby Boston, ministering to some of that city's most vulnerable citizens - the homeless - and briefly holding the top job at a shelter.
Trouble followed him. He was forced to resign from one shelter following an accusation that he made unwanted advances toward clients. He was fired from another shelter when his supervisors discovered he had concealed his past.
Through it all, Dagwell was aided by his religious order, the Xaverian Brothers. His supervisor even wrote a glowing recommendation to help him land the director's job at a shelter that serves mainly women and children.
Dagwell's Boston years came to light recently when the troubled Archdiocese of Boston released his personnel records, along with those of nine others.
The documents show what church critics say is a now notorious and all-too-familiar pattern: A clergyman who gets into trouble for abusing children is shuffled off to a new assignment, where he works with few restrictions, and with access to children.
That practice fueled last year's unprecedented church scandal, which exploded with a case in Boston. In November, facing intense public scrutiny, bishops approved a policy that requires them to remove priests from public ministry after one instance of abusing a minor.
Once out of New Jersey, Dagwell kept his past transgression secret by lying on job applications. One shelter promoted him to youth counselor, a position where he worked with younger adults, and possibly teenagers.
A spokesman for a national victims group say he's seen too many cases like Dagwell's. "I'd like to be charitable and say he just fell through the cracks, but you just can't say that anymore," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors' Network of Those Abused by Priests.
"It's a painfully common pattern where abusive priests are sent to other communities or other jobs, where they still command respect and have access to kids," Clohessy said.
Responding to questions from The Record, the Xaverian Brothers - based in Baltimore - released a brief statement expressing regret for Dagwell's behavior, and for recommending him for a job.
"It appears he was recommended as a religious [brother] in good standing for another non-profit position," said Brother Arthur R. Caliman, the general superior for the order. "It's clear now that this should not have happened, and would not happen today."
Because their order is made up of brothers rather than priests, the Xaverians have adopted their own sexual abuse policy, which contains the same provisions as the one approved by bishops, said Brother Richard Mazza, a spokesman for the order.
Dagwell, now 58, is no longer a Xaverian brother. His last known address was in Florida, and he could not be reached for comment. A spokesman for the Xaverians said Dagwell can no longer identify himself as a brother.
Prior to his molestation conviction in New Jersey, Dagwell had a long teaching career at St. Joseph's Regional High School. He coached three sports, started a math team, and taught advanced level physics and calculus.
The graduate of Fairleigh Dickinson University lived in a religious community where members took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
Then he was accused of molesting a 15-year-old boy at the school. Investigators questioned a dozen current and former students of Dagwell, some of whom also said they were inappropriately touched, according to authorities' accounts at that time.
In the end, Dagwell admitted in a plea bargain to touching one student's genitals through the student's clothing during June or July 1986.
Judge Sybil Moses said Dagwell should stay away from children during his probation.
"There is a risk that it could happen again, and I cannot permit the risk," Moses said during sentencing. "Parents have to rest easy when they send their children off to school."
Dagwell's teaching license was revoked. "It is in some ways the downfall of a man who has dedicated his life to teaching and helping others," Dagwell's former lawyer, Michael Beatrice, said at the time.
Once away from New Jersey, however, Dagwell would find ample opportunity to help others.
Less than a year after his sentencing, Dagwell landed a job at an independently run homeless shelter in Boston.
He gave this reason on his job application for leaving St. Joseph's: "I want to raise my social consciousness by working with the poor."
Dagwell was later promoted to youth counselor. A former employee said the shelter didn't house anyone under 18. But any young person seeking help was referred to Dagwell. At the time, a Boston-area probation officer was supervising Dagwell. The promotion appears to have raised no alarm bells.
Dagwell was forced to resign two years later for "inappropriate physical contact with guests - including unwelcome hugging and kissing," according to a report prepared by his supervisors at the shelter. The report doesn't say whether the accusations involved minors. One adult client apparently contacted police and a court hearing was scheduled to determine whether Dagwell's behavior amounted to sexual misconduct. The accuser never showed up in court.
Throughout this period, Dagwell lived in Milton with his religious community. He reported directly to the Xaverians, unlike diocesan priests who typically report to a bishop.
The Boston Archdiocese - which has come under intense fire during the past year for its sheltering of sexually abusive priests - rebuffed Dagwell's request for help. Dagwell went to the archdiocese after he resigned from the shelter.
"The public nature of his previous difficulty and the recent accusation against him locally confirm the sense that it would not be wise to place him within the archdiocese at this time," wrote the Rev. John McCormack, now the bishop of New Hampshire, in a letter to Dagwell's superior with the Xaverian community.
That left it to the Xaverians - who had already promoted him to a supervisory position within the community - to go to bat for Dagwell.
In 1995, Dagwell's superior, Brother Edward J. Keefe, wrote an enthusiastic recommendation to the Crossroads Shelter, which was considering Dagwell for the top job.
"He is personable, outgoing, and industrious in his work," Keefe said.
Dagwell got the job.
He was fired two months later after Crossroads learned of his past.
The last entry in his personnel file said: "Brother John empties his desk and leaves."
Last year, Dagwell left the Xaverians, citing personal reasons.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.