Ex-Norton Priest Pleads Guilty to Indecent Assault
Gets Two Years in Jail, 10 Years on Probation

By Ralph Ranalli
The Boston Globe [Boston MA]
July 16, 2005

NEW BEDFORD -- No matter how much Catherine Murphy tried to blot him out, she said, he was there in every attempt she made at intimacy. Her first date, her college beaux, her husband on her wedding night -- all their faces blurred, and the only person she could see was the man she called "the monster priest."

The Rev. Donald Bowen's sexual abuse of her, which began when she was 9 years old, affected Murphy throughout her life, she said. She was treated for anorexia in college. She contemplated suicide as a young mother. She eventually divorced her husband after years of sabotaging their relationship because she felt so worthless.

"I can trace all of the problems in my adult life to this man," Murphy, now 50, said at a sentencing hearing for Bowen yesterday in New Bedford Superior Court. "I used to pray for someone to come and deliver me from this nightmare. But then I would think, who would believe me?"

Bowen, 67, pleaded guilty yesterday to charges of indecent assault and battery on a person under 14 and performing lewd and lascivious acts on a person under 16.

His criminal case was unusual because it involved incidents that occurred nearly 40 years ago, when he was assigned to a parish in Norton. Because Bowen moved to Bolivia in 1972 to pursue missionary work, however, the clock stopped on the statute of limitations for prosecution of the charges.

At the end of the hearing yesterday, Superior Court Judge Gary Nickerson, citing what he called Bowen's attempt to "minimize" his conduct, sentenced him to two years in jail and 10 years of probation, with strict conditions limiting his access to children.

Walter Shea, an assistant Bristol district attorney, told Nickerson that the abuse began when Murphy was a parishioner at St. Mary's Parish in Norton. The Murphy family befriended Bowen, frequently inviting him for dinner, to family functions, and even on summer vacations to Cape Cod.

It was on some of those occasions that Bowen began fondling the girl, first over her clothes, then under them, then forcing her to perform oral sex on him, Shea said. Under current law, the oral sex would be grounds for a rape charge, the prosecutor said, but at the time it was considered a lesser crime, an "unnatural and lascivious act."

Murphy said that after eventually coming to terms with her abuse in therapy, she went to see several priests about it. More than one, she said, told her to "go home and have a glass of wine and try to forget about it."

She said she now considers herself healthy and "one of the lucky ones," although some vestiges of the abuse linger, such as her inability to accept compliments and the fact that she still changes into her nightgown behind a locked bathroom door.

Both Murphy and the prosecutor said the abuse ended when Bowen joined a missionary order, the Society of St. James, and went to work with the poor in Bolivia.

Bowen's lawyer, Peter Muse, asked Nickerson to balance his client's crime with the good works he had done in the decades after it. At times living without electricity or running water among "the poorest of the poor," Muse said, Bowen helped villagers build schools and medical clinics.

In 1994, Murphy told Bishop Sean P. O'Malley, then leader of the Fall River Diocese and now the Boston archbishop, about her allegations and asked him to ensure that Bowen was not working with children in Bolivia. O'Malley told the Globe in 2003 that in response, he had directed the Society of St. James to prohibit Bowen from interacting with children and to remove him from all forms of ministry. But society officials said in 2003 that O'Malley had asked only that Bowen be kept away from children and that Bowen had been allowed to say Mass in public until indicted in 2002.

Shea said that an investigation by authorities in both Massachusetts and Bolivia had found no other allegations of abuse.

Bowen expressed his "profound regrets" yesterday to Murphy and her family.

But when Nickerson asked him about his crimes, Bowen balked at admitting that he forced her to perform oral sex on him. He then allowed that he did it, but "only once or twice."

Nickerson said he was so "disturbed" by Bowen's attempt to downplay his conduct that he was compelled to sentence the priest both to jail and a long period of probation that will not end until he is nearly 80 years old.