Allegations Vex Lynn Parish; 3 Accused Priests Were at St. Mary's

By Robin Washington and Tom Mashberg
Boston Herald
March 22, 2002

A Lynn parish was home to a succession of priests accused of child molestation over 20 years, beginning in the 1960s, according to alleged victims and their lawyers.

Michael Dempsey, 35, now of California, said that former priest Robert K. Towner molested him when he was an altar boy at St. Mary's in the early 1980s. He has hired a lawyer and is considering a lawsuit over the alleged abuse.

Towner's tenure in Lynn followed that of the Rev. Edward T. Kelley, who served the parish in the 1970s, when Lynn resident Steven Lewis says he was sexually abused by him; and the Rev. Richard T. Coughlin, who pastored there a decade before that, and was accused of molesting boys in a New Hampshire motel.

Dempsey, whose father is a longtime deacon at St. Mary's, said he met the priest when the clergymen would have coffee and pastries after Mass. "He took a shine to me. I appreciated the attention, at first," he said.

Those casual encounters grew into visits to Towner's off-rectory apartment, Dempsey said, where he remembers innocently watching "The Benny Hill Show."

"He served me alcohol - rum and coke - which I hated. Then the evenings started to become overnights. We shared a bed, but I didn't think anything of it because he was a priest," Dempsey said, adding, "Typically, I would pass out. I was so drunk."

Eventually, the priest invited him on a trip to New Hampshire. Like many church families, Dempsey said his family approved of a priest taking interest in their son.

Shortly after they arrived at a mobile home destination, another priest showed up. "I never met him before but it obviously was planned. The three of us proceeded to play strip poker and drink," he said. "Towner reaches down into my pants repeatedly and then smears chocolate frosting on my behind."

After the trip, the overnight visits continued, culminating in a sleepover in which the priest fondled the boy, Dempsey said.

"I was so scared and in my twisted logic I felt really bad for him, thinking, 'This guy is so lonely he had to do that?' "

Reached at his New Hampshire home, Towner, who is now married and works for a real estate company, declined to talk about the charges, saying, "As it is a matter of litigation, I cannot comment."

But Dempsey's lawyer, Jeffrey A. Newman, said Towner exhibited the same pattern with two former altar boys at St. Joseph's Parish in Quincy, where the priest served in the 1970s. The boys were taken to a Laconia area mobile home owned by Towner, Newman said, where they were groped. Towner was also the subject of other previously settled molestation lawsuits, attorney Roderick MacLeish Jr. said.

Dempsey said the molestation ended after he told his father, who confronted the senior pastor at the church, but decided not to pursue the matter.

Dempsey said he too tried to bury it, but found he could not after a failed marriage and an abandoned doctoral dissertation.

"I want to deal with this to break this logjam," said Dempsey, who is now a high school teacher.

His parents have also tried to help, with a deacon friend of his father arranging a private meeting with Bernard Cardinal Law two days ago.

"What was really weird was Law came out to meet them and mentioned Towner without any prompting," said Dempsey, adding that his father hadn't given a reason for the meeting.

"He said, 'Hi, thank you so much for coming today. You must be feeling such pain and such guilt.' "

While the resolution of his case with the archdiocese is ongoing, Dempsey said one bit of closure would be to convey a message to his alleged abuser. "I'd ask him, 'Do you have any idea how wrong what you were doing was? What were you thinking?' "

St. Mary's other two priests accused of molesting have also left the active ministry.

Kelley was suspended after settling molestation-related civil suits in the early 1990s. He currently lives at the church's Our Lady's Hall in Milton. Coughlin was defrocked by the Diocese of Orange, Calif., in 1993 after multiple allegations of abuse there.


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