THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Joan Vennochi

Jolting news for clergy abuse victim

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / February 27, 2011

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CARDINAL SEAN O’Malley is washing the feet of Irish victims of clergy sexual abuse, a gesture of humility and penance offered on behalf of Pope Benedict XVI. But it takes more than symbolism to wash away terrible memories.

Last week, Jim Higgins received a call that brought his back.

Father James F. Talbot — a Jesuit priest who molested him when he was a teenager — is about to get out of prison, he was told by the Massachusetts Department of Corrections. The target release date is March 18. Talbot is asking to serve a three-year probation period in an out-of-state treatment facility.

Talbot will be free in a way his victims never will be, said Higgins, 55, who now lives in Florida.

“He gets to heave a big sigh of relief. The rest of us are stuck with it, ’’ he said.

In the early 1970s, Higgins had a part-time job at the rectory of the Immaculate Conception Church in Boston’s South End, where Talbot worked. In 2003, Higgins was one of 14 men who were part of an approximately $5.2 million settlement of civil claims against Talbot.

Most of the other plaintiffs were former students at Boston College High School, where Talbot taught history and economics and coached soccer and hockey from 1972 to 1980. His victims said the priest encouraged them to wrestle one-on-one with him, sometimes clad only in jockstraps, and then forcibly molested them. In 1980, Talbot was transferred to the Cheverus High School in Portland, Maine.

According to records kept by bishopaccountability.org, Talbot was removed from ministry and sent to St. Luke’s Center in Maryland in 1998, when a former student at Cheverus accused him of sexual abuse. In 2005, he pleaded guilty to the rape and assault of two boys who were BC High students in the 1970s. He was sentenced to five to seven years in prison.

A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections said Talbot is currently at the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater. By law, Massachusetts cannot provide information about prisoner release dates, the spokesperson said.

“If Father Talbot received a jail sentence of one year for every innocent child he molested, he’d probably be in jail for the rest of his natural life,’’ said Boston lawyer Mitchell Garabedian, who has represented hundreds of sexual abuse victims, including some of Talbot’s accusers.

Putting old crimes behind them as new abuse allegations emerge continues to challenge the Catholic Church.

“We want to be part of a church that puts survivors, the victims of abuse, first — ahead of self-interest, reputation, and institutional needs,’’ said O’Malley in Dublin.

But, to survivors, the church still misses the mark.

As Higgins sees it, O’Malley is in Ireland “to clean things up as smoothly as possible.’’ His predecessor, Cardinal Bernard Law, “should have been imprisoned.’’ Instead, Law resigned and was relocated to Rome, where he has “a great life.’’ As for Talbot, “He’s not defrocked . . . There’s a certain amount of punishment he’s received, but not from the church.’’

The Boston Archdiocese referred a call for comment to the Society of Jesus in New England.

“We are committed to placing him in a secure and monitored location, given the grave nature of his crimes,’’ said Alice Poltorick, a spokeswoman for the Jesuits. She said there are no plans for Talbot to remain at a Jesuit residence following his release.

“A process is underway to remove him from the priesthood,’’ she said. In the meantime, “he continues to be fully restricted and will never be allowed any ministry.’’

To Higgins, that response is infuriating.

“In terms of the process underway to remove him from the priesthood — they’ve had years to do that,’’ he said. As Senator Scott Brown’s newly-released memoir reminds us, sexual abuse of children extends beyond any single institution. Brown’s childhood memories include a graphic description of being sexually assaulted by a counselor at a Christian summer camp on Cape Cod when he was 10. But for those preyed upon by Catholic priests, decades of denial are hard to forgive and impossible to wash away.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.