Papers Show Priests' Struggle over Accusations

By Jay Lindsay
Associated Press, carried on WNAW AM 1230
January 12, 2003

[Note: has provided links to dozens of publicly available Boston archdiocesan documents that are referenced in this article. In order to make the links easy to spot but not distracting, we have selected words in the article and linked them to the relevant document. If it was necessary to add a brief explanation, we have marked our addition by putting it in square brackets. We have redacted some of the documents in order to keep confidential the identity of alleged victims and informants, and the address of an accused priest.]

The Rev. James J. Foley's pain over his removal from public ministry after a sexual abuse allegation is plain in handwritten pleas for help to Cardinal Bernard Law.

"A horsewhipping would have been more preferable," he wrote in July 2000. "I have lost everything."

Foley insisted on his innocence, blamed Law for his situation and blasted the archdiocese's "zero tolerance" policy, which removes priests from ministry after a single allegation that's deemed credible, saying it "equals zero justice."

Foley's letters were among reams of priest personnel records released by the Boston Archdiocese in the past month. Some files told of criminal priests who admitted a range of terrible acts they initially denied. But others told of priests suspended after one sex abuse accusation they vigorously disputed but had little power to fight.

Attorney James O'Brien, who represents 11 Boston-area priests who say they've been falsely accused, said the archdiocese's policy permanently damages priests' reputations, whether there's one thin allegation or 100 solid accusations against them.

"It's a terrible problem," O'Brien said. "These guys are out there, and they're forgotten."

David Clohessy of the sex abuse survivors group SNAP said "zero tolerance" is essential for public safety because the vast majority of abuse allegations have proven true and criminal priests have shown they'll lie to save themselves, he said.

"For years and years, for decades, the presumption has been that priests are innocent," he said. "Thousands of kids have been severely scarred as a result."

The Vatican has consistently expressed concerns about due process for priests, and demanded changes in the U.S. bishops' national discipline plan for abusive clergy. Accused clergy now can have their cases heard by a church tribunal to determine if they should be barred from parish work.

Bishop Richard Lennon, Law's interim successor since his resignation last month, assured archdiocesan priests in a Dec. 20 letter that he would "do everything I can to move these cases along as expeditiously as possible." Lennon has already met with personnel officials about handling the open cases and several are near resolution, said the Rev. Christopher Coyne, a spokesman for the archdiocese.

Foley was suspended in 1999 for allegedly fondling a 14-year-old boy's genitals at Holy Name in Boston in the 1980s [see the memo reporting the allegation]. Foley said he talked about body building with the alleged victim and measured body parts but not his genitals to mark progress. "I am only guilty of gross stupidity and indiscretion," he said.

Archdiocesan personnel found the victim believable in two interviews [in fact, the chancery discussed the allegation with the victim three times 1 2 3], but Foley called his leave a "tragedy," and referred to archdiocese's personnel director, the Rev. Charles Higgins, as "the incarnate word of the evil one," according to the documents. Foley remains unassigned. Attempts to reach Foley through the archdiocese's personnel office were unsuccessful and a phone number listed in the records was incorrect.

[ note: In addition to the 1999 allegation, the Foley file contains a letter from a local newspaper to the archdiocese, following up on a 3/26/02 tip letter calling Foley a "monster who preyed on ma[n]y young men" at the same parish where the 1999 accusation had alleged abuse. This article does not mention that letter. The tip also claimed that "several molestation complaints" had been made about Foley. Those complaints do not appear in the voluminous 703-page Foley file, but the file appears to be incomplete. Documents that are included reference others that are not.]

Dennis Keefe left the priesthood in May 1999 after four years fighting an allegation he said was false, according to the records. Keefe was removed from public ministry in 1995 after a 15-year-old boy accused Keefe of rubbing his rear end against the boy's crotch and touching his genitals through his pants while wrestling in his office at St. Stephen's in Natick. [St. Stephen's is in Framingham, not Natick. See also an archdiocesan memo detailing Keefe's response to the allegation and a letter from Keefe's lawyer correcting that memo.]

Keefe wouldn't submit to an assessment of his sexual behavior apparently viewing it as an admission of guilt even after the archdiocese stopped his stipend checks [1 2], and despite personal appeals from Law. [See two letters from Law to Keefe 1 2, a response from Keefe's lawyer, a later letter from Law, and a chancery summary of the exchanges.] Keefe did not hide his anger from archdiocesan officials.

[ note: Keefe chose a secular lawyer to represent him in dealings with the Boston archdiocese about what they considered "pastoral issues." The discomfort that ensued is captured in this exchange between Bishop Murphy (Boston's vicar general, writing to Keefe), and Bruce Ledoux (Keefe's lawyer, "responding" to Wilson Rogers, the archdiocese's lawyer).]

"I asked (Keefe) how he was feeling," the Rev. Brian Flatley, an aide to Law, wrote in an August 1995 memo. "He replied that it was a stupid question, seeing that his livelihood and his ministry has been stripped from him."

The alleged victim did not retract his accusation in a second interview and Keefe continued to assert his innocence. [Bishop Murphy requested the second interview after an awkward meeting with Keefe. Prior to the meeting, Murphy had requested a review of the Keefe file, and had received two assessments 1 2 stating that the allegation was "serious and credible."] With no outstanding civil or criminal complaints, the archdiocese eventually agreed to a deal in which Keefe was reinstated and immediately resigned. Keefe did not return a call for comment. His lawyer, Bruce Ledoux, declined to comment.

[ note: In fact, it does not appear from the Keefe file that the reinstatement-resignation deal went through in May 1999. There are no documents in the released Keefe file that reinstate him. Instead, Keefe broke from his long-standing practice of communicating through his lawyer and sent a handwritten resignation letter to Cardinal Law on 5/29/99. Chancery abuse delegate Higgins summarized the situation for Bishop Murphy on 6/10/99, and two documents were drafted: a canonical document dated 6/25/99 withdrawing Keefe's priestly faculties as of 6/28/99, and a letter from Law dated 6/28/99, notifying Keefe that his faculties were withdrawn as of 7/1/99. These documents are marked "draft" and there is no evidence in the file that they were sent. They are the latest documents in the Keefe file.]

The Rev. Edward McDonagh was removed from St. Ann's in West Bridgewater in May, two months after the archdiocese received a letter from a woman claiming her brother, a prostitute who died of AIDS, told her 20 years ago he'd been raped by McDonagh in the early 1960s. The family has not sued and McDonagh's lawyer, David Sorrenti, said he hasn't been told the identity of the accuser or his family.

"It makes it difficult to defend," he said.

In a letter to the archdiocese, Sorrenti said the allegation was "an unsupported, unreliable, hearsay statement" that wasn't worthy of belief.

Sorrenti said in an interview that the archdiocese, buried under civil suits from about 400 victims, is "definitely taking the safe way out."

"It's easier to suspend a priest first and ask questions later," he said.

In another letter, Sorrenti pointed to the high profile case of the top archdiocese canon lawyer the Rev. Michael Smith Foster who was suspended and cleared on the same allegations twice in three months as an example of how quickly the archdiocese can move. He wondered why his client wasn't getting the same treatment. [In his letter, Sorrenti cited Archdiocese's Commission to Urge Protection for Accused Priests, Boston Globe (9/8/02).]

The archdiocese was delayed in dealing with cases because the Vatican didn't approve the new sex abuse policy until last month, Coyne said. As unresolved cases are now addressed, the concern is fairness and openness, Coyne said.

"The thing is to make sure it's done completely and clearly above board," he said.

[The Boston archdiocese reinstated McDonagh on 2/13/03. See Second Priest, a Law Critic, Cleared of Abuse Charge, by Michael Rezendes and Matt Carroll, Boston Globe (2/14/03).]


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