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Spotlight Report

Maine school struggles to deal with sex abuse issue

Response faulted at Cheverus High

By Sacha Pfeiffer, Globe Staff, 3/17/2002

PORTLAND, Maine -- Paul Kendrick was a model graduate of Cheverus High School, deeply loyal to the elite preparatory school that is known fondly among alumni as the "Jesuit jewel of Maine." A successful investment adviser, he gave generously to the school, embraced its Jesuit ideals of social justice, and maintained close ties with its president, the Rev. John W. Keegan, S.J. Keegan helped Kendrick's family bury their father, and even joined the Kendricks for a memorial dinner on the first anniversary of the death.

But nowadays, reflecting on the school's response to what has become a blot on its reputation -- the removal of two teachers, one a Jesuit priest, following complaints they sexually abused students in the 1970s and '80s -- Kendrick feels a sense of betrayal that has eclipsed the devotion he once felt.

His disappointment is rooted in his conviction that the school has failed to respond with compassion to the roughly nine former students whose allegations of abuse at the hands of Charles Malia and the Rev. James F. Talbot initially were met with skepticism. Instead of acceptance, Kendrick says, there was ostracism. Instead of support, silence.

That was the reaction felt by Cheverus graduates Leo and John Clark when Leo, also known as Steve, said in 1998 that he had been abused for several years by Malia. He kept the abuse secret for years -- even through a breakdown in college and multiple admissions to psychiatric institutions for difficulties he attributes to having been molested.

Because the deadline for filing criminal charges against Malia had passed, the Clarks petitioned -- successfully -- the state Legislature to eliminate the statute of limitations for rape.

But despite that victory, they say they have been shunned by former friends and classmates who view them as "outcasts," John said. Added Leo: "People look through me."

Kendrick said his letter expressing outrage over the plight of the victims, sent to 3,500 Cheverus alumni, left him on the outside, too.

"When the rubber hit the road, the school acted like everyone else -- corporations, lawyers, politicians," said Kendrick. "It defies everything the Jesuit education stands for."

Cheverus officials, who have publicly apologized to victims of the abuse, are stung by the criticism.

In a telephone interview, Keegan, who has been president of Cheverus since 1993, and who was also president from 1980 to 1983, defended the school's response to the allegations, saying that "we've handled this as well as we knew how to handle it.

"We met with victims, we apologized to them, we offered counseling, we met with students and parents, we held workshops for faculty," Keegan said. "We're very sincere, and very sorry for what happened."

"There is not a book to read to see exactly what to do when this situation happens," he added. "We're trying to reach out and be as caring and pastoral as we can."

The aftershocks of the Cheverus scandal underscore why victims are sometimes unwilling to come forward with allegations of sexual abuse by priests: The public scorn that can greet victims only adds to the shame that prompted many of them to say nothing for years.

As victims came forward with allegations of abuse, many alumni and members of the larger Portland community defended Malia and Talbot. Cheverus agreed to pay for counseling for victims, but delayed those payments for several months.

And while school officials insist they had no idea Malia and Talbot had molested students, Kendrick and others wonder how administrators could have been unaware. Indeed, as the Globe has previously reported, there are documents that strongly suggest Cheverus knew about Talbot's abusive tendencies when he was transferred here from Boston College High School in 1980.

Some victims, including Michael Sweatt, a 1976 Cheverus graduate whom Malia acknowledges having molested, point to BC High as a model for how a school should reach out to alumni and potential victims when abuse allegations surface. Last week, after the names of five Jesuits accused of molesting students at BC High in the 1970s and 80s -- Talbot among them -- were turned over to prosecutors, the school set up a toll-free help line staffed by social workers as part of an effort to reach out to alumni who may have been abused; Cheverus has not.

Malia, a legendary track coach who taught at Cheverus for 30 years, admitted his guilt to the Globe and other newspapers. Talbot, who has not returned calls for comment, last year settled a lawsuit filed against him by Cheverus graduate Michael S. Doherty. He invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when asked under oath whether he had sexually abused students. Both lost their teaching jobs in 1998.

The chill felt by many victims extends beyond Cheverus. After Doherty, a 1987 graduate, filed his suit accusing Talbot of molesting him in 1984 and 1985, the response from friends and neighbors in Freeport was near-total silence.

"The community did not stand behind my family," said Courtney Doherty Oland, Michael's sister, who in 1998 notified the Portland diocese of Talbot's alleged abuse after she became angered by a healing service at which Bishop Joseph Gerry encouraged parishioners to forgive abusive priests.

"More people publicly supported Cheverus High School and the decisions Cheverus has made," Oland said. "A lot of alumni would support Cheverus at all cost."

Recently, Gerry was criticized for failing to take clergy sex abuse seriously after allowing two diocesan priests who admitted molesting children more than 20 years ago to remain in their parishes. He removed both priests last week due to public outcry over the cases.

Kendrick and Sweatt have sent hundreds of letters and e-mails and made dozens of phone calls about the issue to school trustees, administrators, alumni, and church officials, several of whom have cut off dialogue with them.

"What have we accomplished," said Sweatt, "except being publicly badgered, humiliated, and shunned by alumni, faculty, Jesuits, and the church as a whole?"

"The victims," Kendrick said, "became the enemy, the troublemakers, the problem. People asked, `Why are you bringing this all up now? Why hurt the school? It happened so long ago.' "

"These were human beings suffering," he said of the high school's victims. "They weren't working to burn the school down. They just wanted to be heard."

Sacha Pfeiffer's e-mail address is pfeiffer@globe.com

This story ran on page A26 of the Boston Globe on 3/17/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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