Faithful Cheer As Priest Acquitted of Abuse

By Debbie Kong
Boston Globe
June 26, 1994

Supporters sang, "Hallelujah!", clapped their hands and choked back tears as jurors found Rev. Paul Manning, formerly of Woburn, not guilty of sexually assaulting an 11-year-old altar boy.

"My biggest regret is that a young boy and his family have been hurt by this," said Father Manning, 54, after the verdict. "It was unfair; it was wrong."

Rev. Paul Sughrue, the pastor of St. Charles Borromeo, where Manning was assigned, had testified that he witnessed an assault. Father Sughrue said he saw two pairs of "braided" bare legs moving "rhythmically" in a recliner in a room at the rectory.

Father Manning had denied the charges from the witness stand, saying that he had only engaged in "horseplay" with the boy.

After 15 hours of deliberation over three days, jurors said in interviews that physical evidence was lacking, and they had difficulty determining which priest was telling the truth.

"The testimony of both men was very impressive," said a juror, Douglas Freeman, acknowledging that gauging the veracity of the men played a role in the decision. "We definitely came down to that point, it was one word over another."

Father Manning, who remained impassive as the verdict was announced in a packed room in the Middlesex Superior Court, said, referring to the altar boy, "I share your joy that justice has been done today."

However, a lawyer for the boy, Andrew Nebenzahl rejected Manning's assertion. "I don't know . . . where Father Manning would have gotten the impression that the boy was joyful," Nebenzahl said.

However, he refused to characterize the boy's reaction, and he did not directly criticize the verdict.

Father Manning said he harbored no bitterness toward Father Sughrue. "That's not my style. If someday we meet, I would welcome him at my table," he said.

"The greatest tragedy is the political gain of people whose opinions are not important to me . . . and the insensitivity to a young boy," Father Manning said, declining to elaborate. "I pray that when we all meet the Lord we will not have to bow down in fear because of political gain."

Jim Healy, a spokesman for St. Charles Borromeo said Father Sughrue was out of town and unavailable for comment.

Father Sughrue had presented his allegations to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston in September. The archdiocese turned the matter over to law enforcement officials about one month later.

Father Manning yesterday criticized the "poor process" of the archdiocese's review, calling it "unjust, unfair and un-Christian."

"I regret deeply that the church of St. Charles has been hurt so deeply," he said.

Middlesex District Attorney Thomas Reilly said the boy did not testify because it was not in his best interests "given his family preferences."

"I feel very badly for this young boy," Reilly said. "We have from day one."

Nebenzahl read a statement from the family, saying that the trial has resulted in an ordeal which no one that age should have to endure.

"It has caused him great personal anxiety," the lawyer said. "The family is relieved that it is over. (It is their) hope that this episode can be put behind them."

Several dozen of Father Manning's supporters waited while the jury deliberated for four hours and lined the courtroom's wooden benches. When the verdict was announced, many stifled cries of joy and relief.

After the court session, they hugged Father Manning and clapped. Father Manning received a standing ovation.

Throughout the trial, Father Manning's proponents have cited his charmismatic, genial character. In his 26 year career he has worked extensively with youth groups and Hispanic Catholics. A group, The Friends of Father Manning, formed a legal defense fund.

Former parishioner Paula Beardon awaited the decision while biting her nails and praying.

"I feel great about it," Beardon said. "I followed him all through the trial. It was important to me to be there for him either way.

"I think it was just a big mistake" she said. "The other priest . . . didn't take the time to (find out)," Beardon said.

She said Father Manning helped her out when her nursing home caught on fire. "He got me more out of it than a psychiatrist ever could," she said.

But Beardon left St. Charles when Father Manning was accused. "I couldn't bear to think that another priest thought Father Manning could do this," she said.

Mark McKenna of Tewksbury was critical of Father Sughrue. He was "screwed up, a jealous priest," McKenna said, as he carried his 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Molly.

Father Manning baptized Molly in a special arrangement at a friend's church so the infant could be the only one baptized there that day, she said.

Mark McKenna has known Father Manning 14 years. "He helped me out when I was younger and my mother was dying," he said. "He was a friend to explain why (it) was happening."

Assistant District Attorney Martha Coakley, the prosecutor in the case and the head of the child abuse section, said she is "obviously disappointed with the results," but respects the decision of the jury.

"We knew from the very beginning that this was a difficult case," Reilly said.

Father Sughrue had testified that he had peered through a door after hearing "five sharp, painful screams" and seen two persons on a recliner chair, their bare legs intertwined "braid-like . . . bodies moving in rhythmic motion."

Defense lawyer Eileen Donoghue said the noises Father Sughrue heard were only "horseplay" and "rough-housing," between Manning and the boy.

Laboratory tests found semen stains on the chair, but the fluid was not matched to Father Manning.

On Friday, the jurors told Judge Robert A. Barton that they were deadlocked. But Barton ordered them to continue deliberating.

"Obviously (the decision) did not come easily," said juror Claire Nunes. "We decided the state was not able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was guilty. The physical evidence that was presented was not sufficient for us."

Nunes ascribed the length of the deliberations and the temporary deadlock to "human nature."

"We still have reasonable doubt" added juror Douglas Freeman.

A source close to the case said that before the unanimous verdict was reached, the jury had been divided, with younger members pushing for a guilty sentence, and older ones wanting to acquit.

After the verdict, Father Manning and his supporters celebrated at a restaurant in Boston.

"I will always minister," Father Manning said, although he would not specify where.


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