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Spotlight Report

Allegations against 2 priests draw scrutiny

By Walter V. Robinson and Stephen Kurkjian, Globe Staff, 8/22/2002


Paul R. Edwards claims that he was abused by the Rev. Michael Smith Foster at a Newton parish in the 1980s. (Photo courtesy WHDH-TV)


Michael Foster


William J. Cummings

 In-depth
Accused of abuse and absolved, Msgr. Michael Smith Foster returned to parish work sobered by his experience.  
Coverage of the Foster case

The accusation in a lawsuit last week that the Rev. William J. Cummings had raped a teenage boy in a hotel room during an overnight church youth-group trip to New York City in December 1982 struck like a thunderbolt at Our Lady Help of Christians Parish in Newton, where Cummings was revered by many for his years of work with teenagers.

The single charge against Cummings was dwarfed by the accusation that between 1980 and 1985, the Rev. Michael Smith Foster - now a monsignor and the Boston Archdiocese's top canon lawyer - molested the same teenager, Paul R. Edwards, in his rectory bedroom at Newton's Sacred Heart parish numerous times.

Because of the allegations, Foster - like 19 other priests suspended because of sexual abuse charges since February - has taken a leave of absence, though through his lawyer he has called the charges false. Cummings died in 1994.

But in both parishes, friends of the two priests have angrily denounced the charges and questioned the credibility of Edwards, the 35-year-old Winchendon man who filed the lawsuit. Edwards, according to many of his childhood friends, has a long history of embellishment, from claiming a role in a hit movie to boasting that he was a semipro hockey player.

And they say they have evidence that raises serious doubts about the accusations. Inquiries this week by the Globe appear to support their skepticism.

Cummings, according to several adult chaperones and students who went on the New York City trips, could not have raped Edwards in a hotel room in December 1982, because the annual December excursion was a day trip, with no hotel room or overnight stay.

Doubts have also been raised this week about the allegations against Foster.

A childhood friend of Edwards, William A. Priante Jr., said yesterday that Edwards called him on May 2 to discuss the alleged abuse, but told him that it was Cummings - not Foster - who raped him numerous times in his rectory bedroom. Priante said Edwards said nothing to him in that call about Foster allegedly molesting him. A second childhood friend of Edwards said he received a similar call about the same time in which Edwards declared he was molested and cited only Cummings.

Additionally, the Sacred Heart pastor, the Rev. John J. Connelly, and three teenagers who worked at the Sacred Heart rectory between 1980 and 1985 said there were strict rules forbidding visitors from the second floor of the rectory. It would not have been possible, they say, for Edwards to spend any appreciable time upstairs without being observed.

Priante said he called Edwards this week to challenge his account in the lawsuit. Edwards, he said, apologized for misleading him in May but insisted the charges are true.

Eric J. Parker, Edwards's lawyer, has refused since last week to allow a Globe reporter to interview Edwards, saying Tuesday that, ''We cannot comment on a pending case.'' Friday, however, Parker arranged for Edwards to be interviewed, but only by WHDH-TV, Channel 7.

Parker has already acknowledged that there are discrepancies in Edwards's account. Cummings, for instance, was not yet assigned to Our Lady in 1982, the year he is accused of the rape. Pressed to provide evidence to corroborate his client's account, Parker refused to say what steps he took to verify the allegations before filing the lawsuit.

Repeated attempts by the Globe to seek comment from Edwards, including a detailed message on his home answering machine, were unavailing. Tuesday night, a Globe reporter visited Edwards's Winchendon home and asked his wife, Shannon, about challenges to her husband's claims of abuse. She replied: ''I know there are serious questions. But I'm not involved in it. It's for him and his lawyer.''

Paul Edwards's parents, Robert A. and Diane, have long been close to Monsignor Foster. Friends of the family said yesterday that the parents are stunned that their son would make the allegations. The family, however, said it would have no comment.

Among the 20 priests who have been relieved this year, many have defenders, parishioners who have said they cannot believe the charges. But in the two Newton parishes, friends of Foster and Cummings - most of them young adults who revere both priests for the inspiration they provided them when they were teenagers - have organized this week to share information they believe will exonerate both men.

Much of the effort on Foster's behalf was organized from London by Linda Amicangioli, a marketing and public relations consultant who used e-mail contacts to rally 21 former youth group members from Sacred Heart. The group released a statement last night describing the allegations as ''false.''

''Father Mike is one of the good priests. And he's a great guy,'' Amicangioli said in a telephone interview last night. ''He does not deserve this, and we're mad. We know better.

''We are sensitive to the fact that there are genuine victims out there. But we feel that in this particular instance, Father Mike is the victim,'' she added.

Sharon Phinney, who was a student leader in the Catholic Youth Organization at Our Lady, said yesterday that it was inconceivable to her that Cummings would molest any child. ''There was never any inappropriate behavior. He breathed life into the church,'' said Phinney, who was among the students and chaperones who said there was never an overnight trip to New York.

In his lawsuit, Edwards asserted that he went on an overnight CYO trip to New York in December 1982, and found himself assigned to a room with Cummings. During the night, the lawsuit says, he awoke to find that Cummings was lying on top of him, and the priest then raped him.

Cummings was not assigned to the parish until June 1983, according to archdiocesan records.

In interviews this week, more than a dozen men and women who attended school and church with Edwards expressed shock and sadness that he has lodged such accusations against the two priests. The Globe could not locate anyone at either parish who thought the allegations were credible. And since they became public last weekend, archdiocesan officials said, there have been no other claims of abuse against either priest.

A penchant for fanciful invention

When Paul Edwards was growing up in Newton, his friends recall, he returned home from his 1974 summer vacation on Martha's Vineyard to tell them that he had been cast that summer as one of the shark's victims in the filming of ''Jaws.'' The hit film opened a year later - without Edwards.

To his friends, that came as no surprise. Edwards, they said this week, has long had a penchant for fanciful invention, including critical details about his career and health.

During high school, three of his school chums said this week, he showed up at school one day to tell them his uncle had just died. After he transferred to Newton North High School, several of his friends remembered, he led others to believe that he was deaf.

To all of them, Paul Edwards was a teller of tall tales. There was no movie role. The uncle, they quickly learned, was alive. And his attempt to portray himself as deaf left them bewildered.

Hallie Huffman Wells, who said she was once ''smitten'' with Edwards, said she could not recall anyone seriously challenging him on the stories he embroidered as a child because, she said, the fabrications seemed harmless. Now, however, it's different.

Wells, one of those who was fooled by Edwards's feigned deafness, said that when she first tried to speak to Edwards, ''He'd use that hollow garbled voice like he couldn't understand me.''

But she said her interest evaporated when she learned that he was pretending to be hearing impaired. It was Father Foster who first told her Edwards wasn't deaf, she said. Foster and Mark Bennett, one of her friends, even drove her to a gas station where Edwards worked to prove that Edwards wasn't deaf.

Over the years, and, some of his former friends said, in conversations that occurred within the last few months, Edwards has variously claimed to have played semipro hockey in the Montreal Canadiens organization, been a police officer on Martha's Vineyard, and become a paraplegic after spinal surgery.

But family friends said those accounts are not true. John Cappadona, who was in the wedding party for Edwards's first marriage in 1993, said Edwards called him on April 30 to discuss the alleged abuse and told him he met his first wife while playing hockey in Canada. Cappadona said he knew she had grown up next door, in Waltham.

Edwards uses a wheelchair, a self-described paraplegic who has become so accomplished as a disabled athlete that he was a member of the US Paralympics team at Nagano, Japan in 1998, where he competed as a downhill skier.

Cappadona, Priante, and a third schoolboy friend, Nicholas Abruzzi, said in separate interviews that Edwards called them in late April and early May to raise the allegations against Cummings. Abruzzi said Edwards also told him that Foster acted ''inappropriately.'' But he took that as a reference to Edwards's claim, repeated in the lawsuit, that he went to Foster to complain about the rape by Cummings, and Foster told him to say nothing about it.

Abruzzi said he is mystified that Edwards would report a one-time act of abuse by one priest to a second priest he now states abused him multiple times.

Priante said he believes Edwards called him about the alleged abuse because, he said, ''Paul was fishing around to get me to join in a group making claims.''

Even when Edwards led him to believe that Cummings was his only abuser, Priante said, ''I had doubts, because he had made so many things up before.''

Debra Bennett, who dated Edwards for several months at Newton North in the early 1980s, described him as ''kind of goofy, and also a complete flake.''

''There was clearly something up with Paul,'' she said. ''He was someone who would very much embellish stories. ... He was a very cute guy and he was funny and silly, and that's why you'd like him - because he was cute and charismatic. But his behavior was just erratic.''

''Paul's stories just don't seem to add up over the years,'' said Bennett, who said she hasn't been in contact with Edwards since the mid-1980s. ''Most people have not kept in touch with him because it's just way too difficult to be a friend to him, when somebody's not telling the truth and embellishing. ... It's hard, because everybody liked Paul a lot because he does have a lot of really great, sweet qualities.''

Bennett said she cannot imagine that his allegations against the priests are true. ''If it's true,'' she said, ''it must have taken Paul so much courage to get up there and say this, and if he's not believed, how awful for him. On the other hand, if it's a lie, how awful for the person's life he's ruining.''

Matt Carroll and Sacha Pfeiffer of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.

Walter Robinson's email address is wrobinson@globe.com. Stephen Kurkjian's email address is kurkjian@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 8/22/2002.
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