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Spotlight Report

Many victims say they're still waiting to meet Law

By Thomas Farragher, Globe Staff, 5/23/2002

Despite Cardinal Bernard F. Law's public vow to meet victims of clergy sexual abuse, the Boston Archdiocese is routinely ignoring requests for those sessions, victims and their attorneys say.

The cardinal has said he will meet with "as many victims as would want to meet with me" at "the timetable of their own choosing." And his spokeswoman insisted this week that the meetings are taking place.

But attorneys for the law firms that have been most prominent in filing lawsuits against the archdiocese said virtually none of their hundreds of clients has been asked to the Chancery to receive Law's apology or his prayers.

Two brothers who allege that they were abused by the Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham at St. Michael's Church in Lowell in the 1970s said they were promised by archdiocesan officials last month that they would be placed on Law's schedule for a meeting. So far, it hasn't happened, they said.

And one man who literally knocked on Law's door in Brighton after the cardinal said he would welcome a meeting with him two months ago is still waiting to see him. He said he left his number at the Chancery but hasn't heard back.

"For him to say that he is meeting with victims is clearly not true," said Phil Saviano, a victim of clergy sexual abuse and director of the New England chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "He could have met with two victims over the last five months and say that he's met with victims, plural, and it would still be an honest statement."

Law's spokeswoman, Donna M. Morrissey, would not say how many victims Law has met with or how many meetings are scheduled.

"They're private meetings that are not part of the public schedule and it's not something we're going to get into the details about," Morrissey said. Told about alleged victims who are frustrated by Law's unfulfilled promise to meet with him, Morrissey replied: "If you tell me there are individuals who have contacted us and have not been contacted back, that's troubling."

Gary Bergeron, 39, and his brother Edward, 38, said they were molested by Birmingham in Lowell in the mid-1970s, when the priest began paying unusual attention to the two altar boys. Gary Bergeron said he was molested dozens of times by Birmingham, including during confession and in the church's sacristy before and after Mass. Edward Bergeron said he was molested several times by Birmingham, abuse that he said may help account for years of drug and alcohol abuse.

The elder Bergeron said he met for two hours last month with Barbara Thorp, director of the archdiocese's healing and assistance ministry. He said she promised to arrange a one-on-one meeting with Law.

"She said to me, `I'm going to check the cardinal's schedule and I will get back to you about this,' " Bergeron recounted. "And I will quote her because I remember her word-for-word. She said, `When you came in here, you sat down and you said you were very angry and very frustrated. And I've spoken with you for two hours and I've heard your sincerity. And you are able to let me know how you feel even though you are angry and even though you are frustrated. The cardinal needs to hear this. The cardinal has a rare opportunity right now.' And I said, `I agree.' "

Bergeron said he is still waiting. He has since filed a lawsuit against the archdiocese, a step he said he wanted to avoid.

Edward Bergeron, who now lives in South Carolina, said he requested his own meeting with the cardinal.

"[Thorp] said, `Absolutely. I will start making the arrangements now,' " he said. "I wanted definitely to meet with Cardinal Law. I was ready to forgive Cardinal Law. I wanted to put this behind me. I don't have the ability to deal with this emotionally. I don't need this in my life right now."

Morrissey said the archdiocese would not make Thorp, previously head of the archdiocesan Pro-Life Activities Office, available for an interview for this story.

She said church officials have tried to avoid scheduling any meeting that might have to be postponed because of Law's "fluid schedule." Morrissey cited the cardinal's recent sworn, pretrial testimony in the case involving convicted child molester and former priest John J. Geoghan and last month's meeting at the Vatican as extraordinary demands on Law's time.

Since the clergy sexual abuse scandal broke in early January, just three law firms have been retained by more than 500 people to represent them in claims against Law and the archdiocese. With a single exception -- a man whose lawyer said the meeting with Law was "tremendously negative" -- those plaintiffs' lawyers said their clients have either been unsuccessful in their attempts to meet with Law or have concluded they no longer wish to see him.

"We have had zero success," said Robert Sherman, whose firm represents 150 of the alleged victims. "It has not happened. We have had dozens of people who have attempted to meet with the cardinal pre- and post-litigation, and they've been rebuffed."

Jeffrey R. Newman, whose firm has been retained by more than 110 alleged victims, said Law should be spending all of his time trying to repair the damage done by priests, some for whom he had ultimate responsibility.

"It's a hard situation, because while there's pending litigation, it's always hard to open a dialogue with the opposition," said Newman. "And he is essentially the opposition. In that fashion, I can't really blame him for not wanting to meet with people who are suing him. But there are many cases where, if he had taken the time to say, `I'm sorry,' I believe we could have come to the table and resolved things amicably for a sum that would be far less than we're going to extract in the long run."

Morrissey indicated that Law is willing to balance his spiritual duties with his potential legal liability by meeting with victims who sue him or the archdiocese. "In some cases, the meetings may not take place until after the resolution of the ongoing litigation," she said. "It may mean a delay in the individual meetings but does not rule them out in the future."

Thomas Blanchette would have preferred a face-to-face dialogue with Law over a courtroom confrontation.

A self-employed contractor now living on Martha's Vineyard, Blanchette, 54, said he and four of his brothers were molested by Birmingham when he was at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Sudbury.

Blanchette said he sought out Birmingham in the late 1980s just before the priest died. He found him at a rectory in Lexington. "I began with a litany of names of kids I knew in Sudbury that he abused," said Blanchette. "With a sense of genuine right eousness, I told him that `What you did to us, and to me specifically, was wrong and you had no right to do that.' "

Blanchette said he visited Birmingham in an Arlington hospital the night before he died, and prayed on his behalf for God's forgiveness. He attended the priest's funeral in April 1989 at which Law officiated. And at a reception in the church basement, Blanchette said, he warned Law that because of Birmingham's abuse, many young men in the archdiocese would be in need of counseling.

Law, according to Blanchette, held his hands over Blanchette's head in prayer. "And then he said this: `I bind you by the power of the confessional never to speak about this to anyone else.' "

When the Globe first reported that exchange on March 24, Morrissey said Law had a "vague recollection" about it but found it "inconceivable" that he would have counseled silence about the alleged abuse. In any case, Morrissey said then that "Cardinal Law is willing to meet with Mr. Blanchette to pursue this matter personally and to clarify any misunderstanding which may exist."

When Blanchette read Morrissey's comments, he took the ferry from Martha's Vineyard the next day and showed up at the Chancery in Brighton. He said he asked to speak with Morrissey, but a receptionist referred him to the Rev. John J. Connolly, the cardinal's chief secretary. Blanchette said he met briefly with Connolly. It was Holy Week, a busy liturgical season, but Connolly nevertheless took his number and promised to call later that day, according to Blanchette.

" `We want to take care of this as soon as possible,' " Blanchette said Connolly told him. When Connolly did not call back, Blanchette said he called his office a week later and again left his telephone number.

Asked Tuesday why Blanchette was never contacted, Morrissey said: "I just don't have a number for him."

Blanchette said: "They probably put my number in the same place they put the Shanley records," a reference to the Rev. Paul R. Shanley, whose record of alleged child abuse went largely undetected, Law has said, because of sloppy bookkeeping. "They're just inept. They're simply inept. I'm still waiting for John Connolly to call me back. I'm on the enemies list now."

The Rev. Charles J. Higgins, who since 1999 has been responsible for oversight of priests accused of sexual misconduct, said in sworn, pretrial testimony last week that since he's been at the Chancery, Law has met with "50 or 60" abuse victims.

But none are clients of Carmen Durso, whose small Boston law firm has been retained by 35 alleged victims of priests.

"I'm sure a lot of people would like to meet him and try to heal," Durso. said. "I suppose he's afraid of meeting with them. And rather than trying to initiate something, to make something positive happen, he's just avoiding it."

For many victims, the time to talk with Law has long since come and gone. Rodney Ford, who alleges that his son, Gregory, was molested by Shanley, said he has no interest in sitting across the table with Law. "It's too late," said Ford.

"Most of my clients have no desire to meet with the cardinal," said lawyer Mitchell Garabedian, who represents 86 of Geoghan's alleged victims and more than 250 others. "Most of my clients are completely alienated from the Catholic Church."

Morrissey said in meeting with victims, Law offers an apology, prayers, and assistance. Those who want to meet with him should contact Thorp, she said.

Thomas Farragher can be reached at farragher@globe.com

This story ran on page A34 of the Boston Globe on 5/23/2002.
Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.


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