Church Aware of Birmingham Accusations As Early As 1964
Alleged Lowell Victims: Archdiocese Documents Proof 'We Are Not Lying'
By Julie Mehegan
Lowell Sun (Lowell, MA)
June 5, 2002
LOWELL Among the nearly 1,000 pages of personnel records released yesterday detailing alleged sexual abuse by priests, there is one sheet of paper that for Gary Bergeron of Lowell is the most damning.
It is a sheet of notes taken by an Archdiocese of Boston priest in 1964 detailing complaints by two Sudbury fathers about the Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham, whom they accused of abusing their sons and who, under pressure from a superior, eventually admitted to an "impropriety."
Birmingham was summarily transferred to a parish in Salem, where he supervised altar boys and the parish school.
In 1964, the 40-year-old Bergeron was a toddler. Nearly a decade passed before "Father B" would arrive in Lowell, where he allegedly molested an adolescent Bergeron, his younger brother, and at least a dozen others during his assignment at St. Michael's Parish in Centralville.
"One piece of paper is absolution. It is vindication. We are not lying," said Bergeron. "I just can't believe that they have known about this since 1964, when I was 2 years old. I just can't believe it."
Bergeron is among 40 men, including 12 from Lowell, suing the archdiocese, Cardinal Bernard Law, and other high-ranking church officials, claiming they were aware of the abuse but did nothing to stop it.
"We always knew, from day one, that there was a big conspiracy here," said David Lyko of Dracut, who says Birmingham abused him when he was an altar boy and a student at St. Michael's School. "Now, just seeing what came out [yesterday], and knowing it's the tip of the iceberg, it's unbelievable."
Birmingham died in 1989. The personnel records from the archdiocese were included among hundreds of pages of documents made public about 10 priests who have been accused of molesting children.
The documents were sought by lawyers for a man who claims he was repeatedly raped by retired priest Paul R. Shanley. Shanley is jailed on $750,000 on a child rape charge.
Attorneys claim the documents show archdiocesan officials routinely transferred priests accused of sexual abuse.
Attorney Roderick MacLeish Jr. said the documents also show "profound institutional memory" that contradicts Law's claims that poor record-keeping by the archdiocese was partly to blame for mishandling of cases. The documents appear to confirm that Law was directly involved in the reassignment of two priests accused of abuse, despite sworn testimony that he delegated such decisions to others.
The documents also reveal new information about Rev. Richard O. Matte, alleging he sexually abused altar boys at St. Joseph's Church in Pepperell and St. Louis Church in Lowell, among other parishes.
Matte would sometimes abuse young boys who came to him for counsel and advice including some who approached him to report being abused by other priests, according to the documents and published reports.
After allegedly raping a 13-year-old boy in Pepperell, Matte told the boy he would "go straight to hell" if he told anyone, according to a 1994 lawsuit. Matte wasn't investigated by the church until 1992, when a Lowell woman apparently complained anonymously about the priest's behavior at St. Louis, published reports indicate. He was later removed from active ministry and now lives in South Dennis.
Birmingham served at St. Michael's from 1970 to 1977. He would later serve parishes in Brighton, Gloucester and Lexington.
Among the documents released yesterday are memos, notes and letters describing efforts to inform church officials of suspicions about Birmingham.
The 1964 notes Bergeron cited describe how two Sudbury men confronted Birmingham during a meeting at the archdiocese headquarters and said their sons claimed he had put his hands inside their pants, fondled them, and asked them sexual questions. Birmingham at first denied the allegations, but eventually apologized for the "impropriety."
Birmingham was immediately transferred and told to seek counseling "to get to the root of this problem." The parishioners were to be told he was "working too hard" and "needed a rest."
In a document dated Feb. 2, 1987, when Birmingham was assigned to St. Ann's Parish in Gloucester, the Rev. Robert J. Banks said he spoke to Birmingham about allegations of sexual misconduct and that the accused priest "admitted there had been some difficulty."
"He agreed it would be helpful to resign from the parish and seek assessment and therapy," wrote Banks, who was second in command under Cardinal Law.
Despite records of Birmingham's admissions, the Rev. John McCormack, then the head of ministerial personnel and now bishop of Manchester, N.H., denied any knowledge of allegations against Birmingham in an April 1987 letter to a concerned St. Ann's parishioner.
The parishioner asked about rumors of Birmingham abusing boys in the 1960s and '70s while assigned to St. James Parish in Salem. He asked if he should warn his son, who then was an altar boy under Birmingham.
McCormack, now a target of the Birmingham lawsuit, wrote that Law received the parishioner's letter and asked him to look into it. McCormack said he asked Birmingham about the rumors.
"He assured me there is absolutely no factual basis to your concern regarding your son and him," McCormack wrote. "From my knowledge of Father Birmingham and my relationship with him, I feel he would tell me the truth and I believe he is speaking the truth in this matter."
The documents also include notes of a 1992 phone conversation with Sister Grace Kenning, principal of the St. James Parish school, who said that decades earlier she had been informed of accusations against Birmingham, which she reported to the archdiocese at the time. Birmingham was then transferred from Salem to Lowell.
The 1992 conversation with Sister Kenning was prompted by a media inquiry about Birmingham.
An attorney representing Birmingham's alleged victims said the records released yesterday "merely scratch the surface" of the evidence they expect to unearth about Birmingham and his transfers.
"Instead of putting [Birmingham] in jail where he belonged, [the archdiocese] simply transferred him to another church, with another school, and a fresh crop of victims," said attorney Robert A. Sherman.
Sherman expects to amend the Birmingham lawsuit in the coming weeks to add more alleged victims, including more men from Lowell.
The Rev. Christopher Coyne, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said he had not seen the latest documents and could not comment specifically on them, but said they provided further evidence of a culture that had failed to properly address the problem.
"Once again, it was part of the protective culture of the church of the time," Coyne said.
Coyne said there was concern about protecting priests, protecting the church and avoiding scandal.
"And forgetting ... the first thing has to be the protection of children," Coyne said.
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