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Church in Crisis

Records further damage Boston church’s credibility


Boston archdiocesan leaders during the past two decades overlooked criminal behavior committed by priests, including assault and battery of a 58-year-old woman, sexual abuse by a priest of teenage female postulants and novices, and the exchange of sex for illegal drugs, according to press reports on archdiocesan records recently released to the public.

The 2,200 pages of records were released Dec. 3 by lawyers for victims of Fr. Paul Shanley, which the lawyers say help prove a pattern of negligent behavior by the archdiocese of transferring abusive priests.

The archdiocese currently faces about 450 civil suits in which sexual abuse by priests is alleged. On Dec. 4, the archdiocese took a step toward declaring bankruptcy when its finance panel gave Boston Cardinal Bernard Law permission to do so if he chose.

The 2,200 pages of documents detail abuse accusations against eight priests and are part of some 11,000 pages documenting allegations against a total of 65 priests. The archdiocese attempted in a last-minute effort to seal all the records from the public by court order Nov. 22. That attempt failed, and one of the lawyers for victims of abuse by Shanley, Robert Sherman, told the Los Angeles Times that the remaining 8,800 pages about the other 58 accused priests would be released in the future.

The latest documents were released nearly a year after the archdiocese was first forced under court order to turn over personnel records of serial child abuser priest John Geoghan. The public viewing of those records accelerated the clergy sex abuse scandal that has since broken across the country (NCR, Feb. 1).

Some who have followed the ongoing church scandal closely say the release of the 2,200 pages is especially damaging to the credibility of Law and some of his former archdiocesan officials who have since been promoted to head dioceses of their own: Archbishops Alfred C. Hughes of New Orleans; and Thomas Daily of Brooklyn, N.Y.; and Bishops Robert Banks of Green Bay, Wis.; John McCormack of Manchester, N.H.; and William Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y.

Said David Clohessy, national chair of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests: “If anyone had the notion that this was just about Cardinal Law, that notion is dispelled. Clearly, Banks, Daily and McCormack and others were deeply and recently involved.”

Recommendations ignored

The records indicate that one of Law’s former officials, Bishop John D’Arcy, who since 1985 has headed the South Bend, Ind., diocese, consistently opposed the transfer of abusive priests. The records show that his recommendations, however, were regularly ignored by Law and his other auxiliaries.

The documents reveal that three women accused Fr. Robert Meffan of sexually abusing them when they were teenagers. In each case, Meffan had convinced the teens to enter formation programs for the sisterhood. Abuse allegedly occurred for years when the priest would visit, ostensibly to offer spiritual guidance. Meffan, according to the records, would tell the girls he was Christ and that they were “brides of Christ” and initiate sexual activity.

Though records indicate that during his ministry Meffan denied ever abusing anyone, the priest, now 73, admitted the abuse in a Boston Globe telephone interview: “What I was trying to show them is that Christ is human and you should love him as a human being.” he told the newspaper. “Don’t think he’s up there and he’s spiritual and he’s not human and physical. He’s human, he’s physical. That’s what I was trying to point out to them.”

According to the records, the first complaint against Meffan was in 1980. No evidence has been found that the archdiocese followed up on the complaint.

In 1984 a diocesan official wrote to Law, who had taken over as Boston archbishop months earlier, that Meffan had refused an assignment because he said he had a secret mission from God that needed his attention.

D’Arcy also wrote to Law saying that Meffan was not “balanced” and could harm the archdiocese. Law, however, reassigned Meffan in December 1985 to a parish in Pembroke, St. Thecla. Meffan held that position until further accusations of abuse led Law to suspend him in July 1993. In July 1996, Meffan complained to Law about the restrictions on his priestly duties, in an essay, saying that he was “a prisoner of love in a cell of allegations.”

In reply, Law characterized the essay as “a beautiful testament to the depth of your faith and the courage of your heart. ... You have touched me deeply, Bob.” It was one of several letters in the records that showed Law as lavishly understanding toward accused abusers.

The archdiocese’s records also outline the history of abuse and involvement in illegal drugs of Fr. Richard Buntel.

Bishop Thomas Daily was notified in 1981 that Buntel was involved in distributing drugs to minors.

Buntel left Malden in 1983 after he denied a charge that he had traded a 15-year-old boy cocaine for oral sex. Buntel was transferred to St. Catherine in Westford. That move was made against the recommendation of D’Arcy, who, in a letter to Daily, said that the archdiocese had been told that Buntel was abusing illegal drugs, was alcoholic, was engaging in homosexual activity, and was providing drugs to minors.

Drugs for sex

Buntel remained in Westford until 1994, when, under questioning about the 1983 allegation of trading drugs for sex, Buntel admitted to the drug use. He maintained, however, that the sexual relationship with the boy began only after he turned 18. Buntel was placed on leave in March 1994.

Records of Fr. Thomas Forry contradict Law’s assertion in January that no priest then serving in the archdiocese had been credibly accused of child abuse. Forry continued to minister in the archdiocese until February, even though multiple allegations of abuse had been made against him.

Forry ultimately admitted to attacking his 58-year-old housekeeper in 1979. A doctor describing the woman’s injuries from the attack said she had bruises, cuts, and that a portion of her hair had been pulled out of her scalp.

A warning by D’Arcy about Forry’s violent behavior did not lead to the priest’s permanent removal from ministry. Law instead transferred Forry to a parish in the southern part of the archdiocese.

In 1984, a woman with whom Forry was alleged to have had a sexual relationship complained to the archdiocese that Forry had abused her son, the same year in which Forry refused long-term pyschiatric care, despite the recommendation of psychiatrists who said he was in “grave need.” Forry opted instead for two months of outpatient treatment.

In 1988, Law approved a transfer for Forry to full-time Army chaplain.

When serving in the Department of Corrections in 1999, according to the Boston Globe, Forry was accused of “screaming and shouting and exhibiting emotional and behavioral problems.” Correspondence from an archdiocesan official called Forry “a deeply troubled person,” and said he should be “held accountable for his behavior.” Law, however, next made Forry a member of the archdiocesan emergency response team, where he would fill in at parishes during any assigned priest’s absence. The next complaint against Forry was made in October 2001 by a woman who said Forry had molested her and her brother years ago when they were still children. Forry was finally removed from ministry this past February.

Records released about other priests accused of abuse who worked in the archdiocese -- Robert Morrissette, Robert Burns, James Nyghan, Peter Frost and Robert Towner -- tell similar stories of accusations of sexual abuse against minors usually leading to transfers by archdiocesan officials.

Fr. Walter Cuenin, pastor of a large, thriving parish in Newton, Mass., Our Lady Help of Christians, said learning of the contents of the documents has been difficult. “Some of these men are our classmates,” he told NCR. “We know them.”

“For priests in the Boston archdiocese it’s a very sad day,” he said. “Many of us feel sad and ashamed by the terrible things that were happening.”

Tom White, the development director of Voice of the Faithful, a lay organization advocating church reform, reacted by wondering: “How much more can we be revulsed?”

Gill Donovan is a writer for NCR. His e-mail address is gdonovan@natcath.org. Free-lance writer Chuck Colbert contributed to this report.

National Catholic Reporter, December 13, 2002