Attorney: 1 in 4 Nuns Abused Deaf Kids

By David Connolly
The Enterprise [Boston MA]
Downloaded May 12, 2004

William Ross says he was 9 years old when a nun at the now-closed Boston School for the Deaf in Randolph force-fed him soup, causing him to vomit. And when he was 12, the same nun locked him in a dark closet for long periods of time, according to a lawsuit filed in Boston Tuesday.

Ross, now of Taunton, also charges that when he was 16 and attending the school, another nun fondled his genitals, put his hand to her breasts and had sexual intercourse with him.

Violet Guertin, now of Rockland, says that when she was a 9-year-old student at the school a nun put her head in a toilet bowl until she passed out, the same lawsuit alleges. Guertin says the same nun also raped her with a finger and locked her in a closet at the school for extended time periods.

Ross and Guertin are among nine former students who allege that Catholic nuns at the school fondled and abused deaf children there over 33 years, according to the 100-page complaint filed Tuesday in Suffolk Superior Court.

"As children, they were sexually molested, physically abused and otherwise mentally tormented," attorney Mitchell Garabedian, representing the plaintiffs, said at a news conference Tuesday.

Years after she left the school, Guertin heard about a similar situation in Maine where deaf students who had been abused later sued.

"I started talking with other deaf people, and we came together and set up a survivors group," Guertin, now 41, said Tuesday through an interpreter.

Garabedian began meeting with the former students at the Boston School for the Deaf more than six months ago and compiled their stories though sign language interpreters. Several plaintiffs at the news conference recounted tales of abuse at the hands of Sisters of St. Joseph from 1944 to 1977.

"Instead of receiving an education, they received beatings and sexually abusive actions," said Garabedian, who previously sued the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston as part of the clergy sex abuse scandal.

The six men and three women who are the plaintiffs claim they were abused at the school for the deaf when they were between the ages of 7 and 16. They are now between 41 and 67 years old.

The Boston School for the Deaf moved from Jamaica Plain to a 67-acre site at 800 North Main St. (Route 28) in Randolph in 1904. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston served as the faculty and administration of the Boston School for the Deaf, which was operated by an independent, nonprofit corporation.

The school closed in 1994, and the property is now home to the Boston Higashi School for autistic children.

Garabedian and the plaintiffs estimated that one out of four nuns at the school were involved directly in abuse, and said the school's principals severely punished students who spoke up.

"The physical abuse is extremely disturbing. It's disturbing, ugly and pitiful," Garabedian said.

The nuns did not teach sign language to the students, many of whom boarded at the school, the plaintiffs said.

In many cases, their parents refused to believe the children's claims of abuse.

"Our parents loved our teachers and loved our principals," said James Sullivan, 55, of Dorchester, one of the plaintiffs.

"They felt the nuns were right - you know, they had to discipline me," he said.

Ross, the plaintiff from Taunton, said nuns physically and sexually abused him while he was a student at the school from 1946 to 1959.

After Tuesday's news conference, Ross, 62, said he retired last year from his printer's job at Reed and Barton Silversmiths.

He declined to elaborate on his abuse allegations Tuesday, but the suit outlined his charges.

Garabedian said additional suits alleging assault, battery, false imprisonment and infliction of emotional distress would follow Tuesday's suit. He said he has met with a total of 31 plaintiffs and has appointments to see seven or eight more potential plaintiffs.

This case is the first to allege widespread abuse by nuns since the clergy sex abuse scandal began in Boston in early 2002.

The plaintiffs are suing at least 13 named nuns, two named priests and the school's physical education teacher, as well as an unidentified nun and an unidentified priest.

The suit names sisters Mary McAvoy, M. John Berchmans, Helen Thomas, M. Joanita O'Connor, Catherine Corrigan, Mary Mark, Bernadette Duggan, Elizabeth Benersani, Mary Carl Boland, Mary Kieran McCormack, Alice Kirby, Helen Callahan and Miriam Theresa Ringer.

Also listed as defendants were Gary Gedney, the school's athletic instructor; the Rev. Charles J. Murphy, a priest of the Boston archdiocese, and Bishop Thomas V. Daily, who held several top posts in the archdiocese before becoming bishop of the Diocese of Brooklyn. There were several other defendants whose identities were unknown, according to the lawsuit.

McCormack, CEO and principal from 1966 to 1971, was listed as a defendant in the suit for her duty to hire, supervise and direct employees. She also taught at the school.

Reached by phone Tuesday at a Sisters of St. Joseph home in Rockland, McCormack, who is retired, declined to comment. Boland, a former principal, also declined comment.

The Sisters of St. Joseph, in a statement released Tuesday, said the school, which was open from 1899 to 1994, had positively influenced "thousands of lives," but also promised an immediate, fair and sensitive investigation.

"With regard to the accusations of abuse against our sisters and others at the Boston School for the Deaf, we will proceed with sensitivity and dignity for the alleged abused and with a sincere reverence for the truth and respect for civil and canon law," the statement said.

"We want to remind all that the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston approaches reports of possible abuse with compassion, pastoral care and attention to the protection of each person involved," the statement said.

The Rev. Christopher Coyne, a spokesman for the Boston archdiocese, did not immediately return calls Tuesday seeking comment.

George McMahon, the attorney representing Murphy, said this morning his client knew of no abuse at the school and would not have allowed it to occur.

"He wouldn't tolerate that," McMahon said. "He is a good man, believe me - I have known him a long time."

McMahon said he still has not seen the suit. "As far as I know, from what I have heard, he supposedly accidentally walked into a room to get another student and one of the students was partially disrobed. That is the only allegations that I have heard," he said.

William Shaevel, an attorney for the school, earlier Tuesday said he had not yet seen the lawsuit or received details about the allegations. He did not return calls following the release of the lawsuit later in the day.

Garabedian praised the plaintiffs as courageous for coming forward and singled out Guertin, the Rockland resident, as one of the organizers of the former students.

"We want you to all know we were victims," Guertin said.

Guertin was a student at the school between 1967 and 1977.

The current address of McAvoy, the nun Guertin said abused her, is unknown, according to the complaint. In addition to the abuse allegations involving the nun, Guertin claims Gedney exposed himself to her when she was 11.

Sullivan of Dorchester, speaking through a sign language interpreter, detailed how he was made to pull his pants down in front of his class and was beaten and locked in a closet by nuns.

Ross, the Taunton man, said Mark was the nun who sexually abused him.

Plaintiff Tamara Marcinuk of Fitchburg said she wanted to tell people what happened after hearing of the clergy sex abuse scandal.

"I was steaming. Where are all the nuns in all of this?" she said. "These nuns abused me both sexually and physically. I never had a peaceful life."

In the complaint, the plaintiffs say they suffered from severe emotional problems, and many reported having suicidal thoughts, which they blame on years of abuse. They seek a jury trial and damages from individually named plaintiffs.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.