Priest to Change Sex Crimes Plea

By Gregg M. Miliote
The Herald News [New Bedford MA]
July 13, 2005

NEW BEDFORD -- The Diocese of Fall River priest accused of raping a young Bristol County girl on numerous occasions more than three decades ago will likely plead guilty to a three-year-old indictment Friday in Bristol County Superior Court. Father Donald Bowen, 67, is charged with indecent assault and battery of a person under 14 on several occasions and unnatural and lascivious acts on a person under 16 on several occasions. Each charge carries a five-year maximum prison sentence.

Bristol County District Attorney Paul F. Walsh, who found a loophole in the commonwealth's statute of limitations laws leading to the 2002 indictment, confirmed Tuesday that Bowen is scheduled to appear for a change of plea hearing Friday morning.

Walsh, though, could not comment on the specifics of any plea agreement.

"It's an ethical violation to discuss the possibility or the potential agreement on a plea, because it could hinder the defendant's right to a fair trial if he changes his mind about pleading out," Walsh said. "But, I can tell you we will absolutely be recommending jail time no matter what."

The alleged abuses occurred between 1965 and 1971 while Bowen was serving as a pastor at St. Mary's Church in Norton.

Bowen also served at St. Patrick's Parish in Somerset and St. John the Evangelist Parish in Attleboro.

Walsh said the girl, now a 50-year-old woman, was 9 years old when the first sexual abuse occurred and that the abuse continued until she was 16.

During previous hearings, Assistant District Attorney Walter Shea said the alleged sexual misconduct took place in the girl's home, at the parish center and in various other locations where Bowen allegedly forced the victim to perform oral sex on him multiple times a week.

After decades of silence, the woman informed church officials about the alleged abuses. Then, in 1992, she accepted a monetary settlement from the diocese.

"I think this guy should go to jail for what he did to a little girl," Walsh said. "If these abuses occurred more recently, he would be facing multiple counts of rape and be looking at serious jail time. I will be very pleased by this outcome because people will then recognize we're persistent about these cases.

"We broke ground with the conviction against (James) Porter, and we're still showing we will stick to our guns because when an injustice occurs, it needs to be rectified."

Bowen was among 21 priests Walsh publicly named as potential priestly pedophiles during a controversial press conference in September 2002.

His critics asserted Walsh never should have publicly identified priests he had no opportunity to indict.

But Walsh fired back at the time, saying the release of the list was a crucial step toward closure for many alleged victims of clergy abuse. He also hoped the naming of the priests would spur silent victims to come forward with their allegations.

Unfortunately for Walsh, though, nearly all of the priests listed could not be prosecuted due to the statute of limitations or death.

But in the Bowen case, Walsh was successfully able to garner an indictment even though the abuses occurred more than 30 years ago.

Since Bowen left the commonwealth in 1972 to lead a Catholic mission in Bolivia, the statute of limitations froze.

After learning of the indictment, Bowen voluntarily returned to Massachusetts and was arraigned on the two charges in early October 2002. During his arraignment, he was released on $100 cash bail.

His case was slow to move through the court system during the ensuing three years. But Walsh said he was never concerned with the lack of progress in the case.

"This criminal case has been pending for almost three years, but the victim has waited more than 20 years for justice," Walsh asserted. "The three years is of little concern to us. Given a case like this, it's better to be thorough than to rush to judgment."

Bowen's Boston-based attorney, Peter Muse, did not return phone calls for comment Tuesday.