Norton Woman Tells of Priest Sex Abuse

By Gloria LaBounty
Sun Chronicle (Attleboro MA)
April 27, 2002

A priest accused of years of sexual abuse of a young girl at St. Mary's Parish in Norton in the 1960s and 1970s spent the next 28 years working in Catholic missionary parishes in South America until he was forced into retirement several weeks ago.

Father Donald Bowen, who served at St. Mary's from 1965 to 1973, allegedly began abusing the girl when she was 9 and continued until she was in high school, according to the victim, who contacted The Sun Chronicle but asked not to be publicly identified.

The victim, now in her 40s, said she recently reported Bowen to the Bristol County district attorney's office. The Fall River Diocese reached a settlement with the victim in 1992, paying her an undisclosed amount of money and requiring her to keep silent about the matter. The settlement does not prevent her from reporting the crimes to prosecutors.

A spokesman for District Attorney Paul Walsh Jr. declined to comment, but The Sun Chronicle has learned that Bowen is one of 25 priests in the Fall River Diocese that Walsh's office is investigating.

A spokesman for the diocese said he is not aware of any allegations by other individuals against Bowen, either locally or in South America.

The victim said she was prompted to come forward by news accounts of the sexual abuse scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston. She said she wanted to both urge the church to prevent such crimes in the future and to make people aware of the impact of abuse on victims.

" Hopefully if enough people read about this horrific ongoing problem, the public will band together and force those in power to put a real true stop to this," she said.

" I want to do anything and everything I can to prevent this type of experience from happening to another child," she said. " The aftereffects are horrendous ... Had I been protected from this pedophile I know my life would have turned out very differently than it has."

The victim said she had spent years in therapy to deal with various physical, psychological and emotional problems, including anorexia and suicidal tendencies, and difficulties with relationships, intimacy and trust. She now considers those problems behind her.

She even became a quiet activist, and organized a couple of retreats for victims of abuse. " Victims can recover and even thrive," she said. " I count myself as one of them."

Missionary work

In 1973, Bowen went to South America under the auspices of the Boston-based Society of St. James the Apostle, but like others in the missionary program he officially remained a diocesan priest. The society's volunteer priests are loaned by their bishops to churches in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador.

Bowen continued to work in South America until he was removed earlier this year, long after diocesan leaders were made aware of the allegations against him.

Beginning in the late 1980s, the victim, either personally or through her lawyer, communicated with church officials about the alleged abuse.

Those contacted included Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston; the St. James Society; Archbishop Daniel Cronin, who was bishop in Fall River at the time and is now archbishop in Hartford; Bishop Sean O'Malley, who came to Fall River in August 1992, and priests involved in processing an annulment of her first marriage in the late 1980s. She said she also talked to individual priests about the abuse at different points in her life.

After being contacted by the victim's lawyer in 1990, the Diocese of Fall River offered the monetary settlement, which she agreed to and signed in 1992. That was after Bishop Cronin had left and before Bishop O'Malley arrived.

According to diocesan spokesman John Kearns, when Bishop O'Malley became aware of the allegations, he told the St. James Society that Bowen was to receive ongoing therapy and have no unsupervised access to children. Kearns said that while working for the society, Bowen was under its supervision and directly responsible to his superiors there.

'Our little secret'

Bowen had been ordained for a year when he was assigned as an associate priest at St. Mary's in 1965. He became a friend of the victim's family, was a frequent guest in their home, and often took the children out to run errands, get ice cream, go to a fast-food restaurant or stop by the parish center.

One night, he stepped over the line, she said.

She was 9 the night she was at the home of a relative, sitting in the living room with Bowen and a cousin. The adults had gone to bed, she said, and her cousin had fallen asleep when Bowen grabbed her, pulled her on top of him, and began fondling and kissing her.

The next day, she said, he acted as though nothing had happened.

" I didn't say a word," she said. " I didn't know if it was right or wrong."

Little by little, more and more happened in various locations, she said, including her house and those of relatives, the parish center, the choir loft, and Bowen's car.

At the time, she didn't understand the sexual acts, she said, and thought they were part of being the priest's friend.

" Whatever he told me to do, I did it," she said.

The priest made her feel special for being singled out, she said, and he began telling her he loved her.

" He said it was our little secret, that no one should know," the victim said.

She didn't tell anyone for years, she said, because she thought no one would believe her.

" I never went to anyone because it would have been a miracle for anyone to believe me," she said. " Everyone adored this guy. Who would they believe -- a priest who was highly regarded, or a little girl?"

When she reached high school age, she said she tried to stop the abuse and resisted his efforts to be alone with her. She also began confiding in friends, and believes that word got back to her family and to Bowen.

Soon after that, she heard he was going to South America.

Bowen left St. Mary's in 1973 and spent a couple of months at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Attleboro before going to South America in the fall of that year, according to Kearns.

Bowen remained there but periodically returned to this country for visits, according to the victim.

During one of those visits, she said she confronted him about the abuse, and he told her he loved her and wanted to leave the priesthood to marry her.

For years, he sent her love notes and cards, she said, and continued to send her letters from South America.

Removed from ministry

Bowen was most recently serving at a church in Oruro, Bolivia.

As of earlier this year he was no longer with the St. James Society, according to the Rev. Joseph Shields, director of the society.

Shields said Bowen left based on Cardinal Law's " zero tolerance" policy that calls for removal of priests after a single allegation of abuse. He said Bowen's case had been brought to his attention, but would not elaborate on how that occurred.

Shields declined to answer other questions about the priest because of his concern over legal issues involved in the case.

Bowen is now retired and living on his own in Bolivia, according to Kearns, the diocesan spokesman.

Attempts by The Sun Chronicle to contact Bowen through the diocese and through the St. James Society were unsuccessful, as were attempts to reach him by telephone in Bolivia.

A police captain in Oruro who was reached by phone, told The Sun Chronicle that he had no information on anyone named Donald Bowen in his files.

As of late February, Bowen was still listed on the St. James Society's Web site as being in Oruro, one of four priests there and one of a dozen in Bolivia.

By late March, Bowen's name and photograph had been removed from the Web site.

At the time Bowen was sent to South America in 1973, the Fall River Diocese was overseen by Bishop Cronin, who is now in Hartford. When contacted by The Sun Chronicle for comment, the Rev. John Gatzak, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Hartford, referred all inquiries about Bowen to Kearns of the Fall River Diocese.

Kearns said Bowen requested on his own to join the St. James Society in 1973, a time when dioceses had an ample number of priests and were able to release some from diocesan duty so they could do mission work.

Under canon law of the church, Kearns said, these priests remain a part of the diocese where they were ordained, but come under the supervision of the St. James director when they join the society.

Gathering strength

The victim said she went through years of therapy after Bowen left, and gradually became strong enough to talk about the abuse. She said she told her story to a couple of priests over the years in the hope that something would be done about Bowen, but nothing happened.

In the late 1980s, she applied to the Fall River Diocese for an annulment of her first marriage as a way of bringing the allegations to the attention of the church.

She attributed her marital difficulties to the abuse by Bowen. As part of her testimony to obtain the annulment, she said she had to provide graphic details of the abuse. Yet Bowen stayed in South America, and she said she got a fast annulment at no expense to her. " I didn't even pay for a postage stamp," she said.

According to Kearns, any information that is part of an annulment process is strictly confidential, and would not be shared with anyone outside that process.

The victim later went to a lawyer, who sent letters in 1990 to Cardinal Law, Bishop Cronin and Monsignor John Moriarty of the St. James Society, claiming that her client had suffered severe personal injuries as a result of " the negligence and improper conduct of Father Donald Bowen."

The lawyer ended up dealing with the attorney for the Diocese of Fall River and sent him a subsequent and lengthy letter describing the abuse in detail, and the psychological, sexual and emotional damage the victim said she suffered because of it.

The victim said she asked at the time of the settlement that Bowen get treatment and not have contact with children. The diocese would not put that in writing, she said, but said it would suggest to the St. James Society that the priest be in therapy and not work with children. She said she was also told she could call and check on his whereabouts at any time.

The victim said she never got any proof that Bowen went into treatment, and was continually concerned that he might be abusing more children in the mountains and villages of South America.

" To say he had no access to children is a joke," the victim said.

Just before Porter

The settlement was reached in 1992 just weeks before the victims of former priest James Porter went public with their allegations, which included abuse of dozens of children in the 1960s at St. Mary's parish in North Attleboro and elsewhere. Porter is now in prison.

Bowen's victim said she was surprised by the revelations and had never thought that so many others had been abused by a priest.

The victim said she remained concerned about Bowen and called the St. James Society in 1994 to ask about his whereabouts.

The society, she said, would not give her any information, and she then contacted Bishop O'Malley, and asked to meet with him. She said the bishop listened to her story and told her he was not familiar with the case, but would look into it.

She received a letter from the bishop in September 1994 that said Bowen was still affiliated with the St. James Society in Oruro, Bolivia.

" I have taken every step possible to insure that past problems will not be repeated," Bishop O'Malley said in his letter. " He and his superiors have been advised that he is to have no unsupervised access to children. He has been directed to receive ongoing therapy. If these directives are not workable for him, or the Society of Saint James the Apostle, he is to return home and retire from active ministry."

Kearns, the diocesan spokesman, said that when Bishop O'Malley became aware of the allegations against Bowen, he contacted Bowen's superior at the St. James Society, and was assured that the priest would not be working with children, and that his tasks would only include training adult religion instructors, writing a history of the society, and performing other administrative tasks, and that he would be supervised.

Besides a director, the society has a coordinator for each of the three countries in South America where parishes are located. In the society's monthly newsletter in June 2000, Bowen was referred to as the coordinator in Bolivia.

A policy Bishop O'Malley had put in place in 1994 called for the establishment of a review board to investigate allegations and for mandatory reporting to legal authorities if a child was being abused. Since then, the review board has looked at allegations brought to the attention of the diocese by alleged victims who are now adults.

The policy would not have applied to the Bowen case, Kearns said, because it had been settled with the diocese before Bishop O'Malley arrived. But he said the bishop felt strongly enough about the allegations to contact the leadership of the society. Since the Porter case, he said, " nothing is taken lightly or for granted."

Bishop O'Malley has said that when allegations of past abuse were brought to the diocese following the Porter case, he investigated and then removed several priests from active ministry if the allegations had substance.

Asked why the bishop did not remove Bowen from ministry at that time, Kearns said the priest was directly responsible to his superiors at the St. James Society, and Bishop O'Malley had been assured that Bowen would not work with children.

Widening probe

The diocese and District Attorney Walsh announced last week that they had been exchanging information about old cases for several weeks and that complaints against 25 priests were being investigated. The individuals and their parishes were not identified.

According to a law enforcement source, Bowen is on the list, and one of the issues bearing on all the cases is the statute of limitations.

In the Bowen case, investigators will presumably examine the effect of Bowen's residency in South America. Under some circumstances, authorities have said, the statute of limitations doesn't expire if the suspect leaves the jurisdiction in which the crime occurred.

In explaining his sexual abuse policy in the past, Bishop O'Malley has said that no diagnosed pedophile would be assigned in the diocese or be authorized to minister outside the diocese. His spokesman, Kearns, said the diocese does not even wait until a case goes that far, and is now removing accused priests while investigations are conducted.

That was the case with the Rev. Steven Furtado, who was recently removed from Holy Ghost Parish in Attleboro while an allegation against him is investigated. The incident allegedly occurred about 20 years ago.


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