Ex-Priest Pleads Guilty to Raping Boys
He Is Sentenced to Eight to 11 Years
By Jonathan Saltzman
October 1, 2005
In quavering voices and anguished tones, they described how the priest had betrayed them and destroyed their lives, how the sexual abuse he committed when they were boys led to heroin addiction, suicide attempts, fear of intimacy, and loss of faith.
Moments after former Catholic priest Robert Burns pleaded guilty yesterday to sexually abusing five boys at two Boston parishes in the 1980s and 1990s, four of the victims, now young men, told a judge that his crimes were all the more horrific because he was an admired priest.
"It is easy to blame the stranger in the alley who takes advantage of people, but how do you get mad at the person who helps you get into heaven?" said a 34-year-old Boston man who said he has never been sexually intimate because of the abuse.
A 28-year-old Charlestown man, one of three members of an extended family whom Burns admitted abusing, said, "Bob Burns, now it's time to take your hell on earth."
Suffolk Superior Court Judge Margot Botsford, who could have imprisoned the 56-year-old defendant for the rest of his life, imposed a sentence of 8 to 11 years behind bars, with 10 years of probation to follow.
Botsford agreed that Burns had "permanently and very profoundly" damaged the boys whose families had put their trust in him. But she said she had to balance that against the contrition he has shown and the psychological progress he has made since he served three years in prison in New Hampshire for another sexual abuse conviction. Burns has attended a Concord, N.H., program for sex offenders for six years, even though he no longer is required to.
"I know there are those among the victims who wish I would impose the maximum sentence of life in prison," Botsford told the young men and about 20 supporters, many with red-rimmed eyes. "I am not going to do that."
The prison sentence was less than the 12 to 15 years requested by Assistant Suffolk District Attorney David Deakin, but more than the five to eight years recommended by Burns's lawyer, Timothy P. O'Neill. . Overall, it was a bit harsher than what other convicted clerics have recently received during the sexual abuse scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston.
In January, the Rev. James F. Talbot, a former teacher and athletic coach at Boston College High School, was sentenced to five to seven years in prison for raping and sexually assaulting two of his students in the 1970s.
Last year, a retired Franciscan brother, Fidelis DeBerardinis, was sentenced to eight years in prison after he pleaded guilty to 17 counts of sexual abuse involving eight altar boys at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in East Boston from 1968 to 1973.
In an apology delivered in a soft voice, Burns said: "I am pleading guilty today because I am guilty. To my victims, I want to say I know I violated your trust and your innocence. . . . I know that what I took away from you I cannot give back to you."
Burns came to Boston in 1982 from the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio, and was assigned to St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Jamaica Plain even though top archdiocesan officials in Boston knew of his history of pedophilia.
In 1983, prosecutors said, he began sexually abusing a 12-year-old over an 18-month period inside the church and in Burns's room in the rectory.
The diocese transferred Burns to St. Mary's Parish in Charlestown in 1986. After his arrival, Burns befriended a family that worshiped at the church. He began taking three boys under the age of 10 on outings in his car, where he fondled them, prosecutors said. With two of the boys, the abuse escalated, continuing in the rectory and inside the church.
The fifth boy Burns abused was the child of another family he had befriended at St. Thomas Aquinas.
One of his victims bitterly told him that he prayed "God grant you the same fate that he granted John Geoghan," the dismissed priest and pedophile who was strangled in a prison cell in August 2003.
Burns moved to New Hampshire after he was dismissed from the priesthood in 1991. He was arrested there in 1995 on sexual abuse charges, served three years in prison, and voluntarily returned this year to face the Massachusetts charges.
He pleaded guilty to six counts of rape of a child under 16 and seven counts of indecent assault and battery on a child under 14.
Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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