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Spotlight Report

  Adrian Walker  

Facing up to trouble

3/7/2002

What could a fading photograph of a group of Jesuit priests have to do with the sexual abuse scandal roiling the Archdiocese of Boston?

A lot -- if you're Bill Kemeza, the principal and acting president of Boston College High School.

The picture in question was taken on Founders Day in 1958, and depicts about 200 Jesuit priests in front of the school. For Kemeza, it represents the legacy he is now charged with protecting.

"I look at that picture, and I owe it to the best of those men -- and that's a lot of them -- to face the past squarely, and to face the future as the dynamic school we are," Kemeza said yesterday.

The present Kemeza is facing these days is unlikely to ever make anyone's list of warm memories. The Rev. Stephen F. Dawber was suspended from the faculty this week, while the Rev. Francis J. McManus was suspended by the Society of Jesus for allegations dating back to his time on the BC High faculty.

In responding to the allegations, Kemeza's conduct was in sharp contrast to that of Cardinal Bernard F. Law and the Archdiocese of Boston.

He has been forthcoming, sharing what he knows -- which isn't very much -- and admitting what he does not know. He answered difficult questions without a trace of defensiveness.

A major question is whether the allegations of abuse, some of which date back to the 1970s, were reported to administrators at the time. The short answer is, Kemeza doesn't know.

"I don't think we have good records," he said. "I know we don't have good records. It's very haphazard. I don't have any individual personnel files."

One day after suspending Dawber, Kemeza met with the 1,260-member student body yesterday by grade. He reminded them that the allegations date back to the 1970s, before any of them were born. He wanted them to know, when they heard the name of their school on the news and read it in the papers -- that the charges had nothing to do with them.

"It's very easy to internalize this stuff," he said. "I wanted to say, `This isn't you.' They get it. They know this isn't about them."

He ticked off the measures the school would be taking following the charges. First, there will be letters to parents of Dawber's students, and letters to the school's alumni. The school will also set up a hot line for former students to report past abuse.

Asked if he would encourage former students to report abuse he said, "If there's an issue, I don't see why they shouldn't raise it."

This has been a painful turn of events for BC High, and for Kemeza personally. Until this week, no teacher had been suspended for allegations of sexual misconduct in the school's 139-year history.

Kemeza, 53, has been at the school since 1983 -- when, he believes, he was hired to replace Father McManus teaching religious studies. This is his second stint as principal, a post he previously held from 1990 to 1996. It has been years since Jesuits made up the bulk of BC High's faculty, and Kemeza is a case in point: He is a layman, married to an Episcopal priest.

As of yesterday, Kemeza had not had an opportunity to speak to any of the alleged victims. In fact, he said he did not yet know who any of them were, and was getting much of his information from this newspaper.

Still, Kemeza deserves some credit for facing a difficult situation with some grace. As he said repeatedly, "We're going to do this the right way."

He didn't seem daunted by the possibility of further allegatons or revelations; indeed, he seemed to relish a chance to get things out into the open.

"I just hope we get to some kind of truth," he said. If only everyone in authority felt that way.

Adrian Walker can be reached by e-mail at walker@globe.com.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 3/7/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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