Back to Boston.com homepage Arts | Entertainment Boston Globe Online Cars.com BostonWorks Real Estate Boston.com Sports digitalMass Travel The Boston Globe Spotlight Investigation Boston.com Abuse in the Catholic Church
HomePredator priestsScandal and coverupThe victimsThe financial costOpinion
Cardinal Law and the laityThe church's responseThe clergyInvestigations and lawsuits
Interactive2002 scandal overviewParish mapExtrasArchivesDocumentsAbout this site
 Latest coverage

April 7
Vt. church in record settlement

March 14
In Albany, bishop profile raised
Book Review: Guard of lies

February 28
Church hierarchy faulted
More than 80% of victims male

February 27
Diocese gives abuse data
Abuse peaked in '60s
2d man to aid Dupre case

February 26
Alleged victim to aid probe

February 24
Sniezyk clarifies his remarks

February 23
Prelate: Harm unrecognized

February 21
Springfield report questioned

February 20
Lawyer: Sermon riled accuser

February 17
4% of priests in US accused

February 12
Bishop resigns after claims

February 6
Arlington priest cited in suit

Earlier stories

Search for:
Time period:

Spotlight Report

Records show a trail of secrecy, deception

By Walter V. Robinson and Stephen Kurkjian, Globe Staff, 12/4/2002


Rev. Robert M. Burns

 Related stories
Records detail shifting of priests
Priest invoked religion for sex acts
Quotes from Meffan interview
Records show a trail of deception
Life of a violent South Shore priest
Bishop's letters of warning ignored

 In-depth
Top church officials, such as Bishop John B. McCormack, have been implicated in systematic abuse coverups.  
Coverage of archdiocese coverups

When it came to the Rev. Robert M. Burns and his sexual attraction to boys, the first consideration of the Archdiocese of Boston was secrecy.

In the early 1990s, keeping Burns's crimes secret preoccupied top aides to Cardinal Bernard F. Law. They plotted how to mislead inquisitive reporters who might ask about Burns. And when a lawsuit against Burns was filed, the Rev. John B. McCormack, now a bishop, noted emphatically, ''Papers are impounded - temporarily!''

The bishops also worried about how to squelch rumors. When Bishop Alfred C. Hughes expressed concern about an anonymous letter citing knowledge about Burns's abuse, McCormack wrote back: ''Shall we trace it?''

The cardinal's aides even drafted a misleading press release, which minimized Burns's ties to the archdiocese. And when Law ultimately moved to seek Burns removal from the priesthood, his request to the Vatican focused as much on the harm Burns had done to the church's reputation as it did on the harm Burns had done to children.

''The immoral and illegal activities of Father Burns during his stay in the Archdiocese of Boston are the cause, potential and actual, of grave scandal,'' Law wrote to the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano.

That penchant for secrecy and fear of scandal was shared by Law's predecessor Cardinal Humberto S. Medeiros and his bishops. It eased the way for Burns to molest children undetected for nine years in parishes in Jamaica Plain and Charlestown.

Medeiros and at least two of his top bishops - Hughes and Thomas V. Daily - knew that Burns had a history of sexual abuse. Even so, they dispatched him to a parish where he would have contact with children - and decided that the pastor should be told nothing of his problems.

For years, the Archdiocese of Boston covered up the sexual misconduct of its priests by coaxing lawyers for victims into making secret settlements. And the documents in Burns's files suggest that the lawyers knew their claims were worth more if they were settled in secret.

For example, one lawyer, Timothy P. O'Connell, opened a letter demanding a $1 million settlement for a Burns victim by noting that similar abuse cases, if they were decided in a jury trial, ''generally receive wide publicity.''

The three largest claims paid to Burns's victims, totaling more than $2 million, were paid secretly before news about him became public in 1996. One attorney who settled such cases said yesterday that he and other lawyers were able to secure larger settlements if the priest's name had not been made public.

Burns, who was from the Youngstown, Ohio, Diocese, had asked to serve in Boston in 1982 as he concluded a year of treatment for child molestation at a church facility, the House of Affirmation in Whitinsville.

Medeiros knew about Burns's past. Two of his bishops knew. And the records show that they all had ''reservations'' about giving him any assignment.

Rev. Gilbert S. Phinn, the clergy personnel director, suggested Burns be restricted to work as a convent chaplain. But Hughes, who is now the archbishop of New Orleans, favored sending Burns to a parish. The decision was contingent on the counselor's recommendation.

''The [counselor's] assessment clearly indicated that Fr. Burns should not be assigned to ministry in which he would come in contact with minors, especially grade school children,'' the Rev. William F. Murphy wrote in 1998 after reviewing the file.

Even so, Medeiros assigned Burns to St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Jamaica Plain, and four years later to St. Mary's Church in Charlestown.

In 1991, Burns was removed from St. Mary's after the first Jamaica Plain complaints surfaced. In 1996, he pleaded guilty to indecent assault of a child for a 1995 incident in New Hampshire and was imprisoned for three years.

When the first lawsuit was filed in 1991, naming the archdiocese, chancery officials became intent on keeping the lawsuit secret. McCormack wrote in an early 1992 handwritten notation. ''Urged press not to do anything.''

But just in case reporters came calling, McCormack suggested to Hughes that the cardinal should be prepared to respond. Among his suggestions: That they not admit Burns had been a Boston priest ''if reporter confused'' and identify Burns as ''a priest who is not of the Arch of Boston.''

Archdiocesan fears that handling of Burns could cause a public furor prompted aides to Law to propose public statements that omitted any mention of the fact that Burns had served in the Boston Archdiocese for nine years.

On Feb. 5, 1992, two draft statements were prepared, one that said, ''The tragic allegations involve a priest from outside the archdiocese of Boston.''

It was left to the Rev. Brian M. Flatley in 1996 to explain the secrecy about Burns to one of his victims. Flatley wrote that he told the victim that the church knew Burns was a molester.

''The young man expressed disbelief at this. He asked if we told anyone at St. Thomas Aquinas about Father Burns' past. I said no, that Father Thomas knew nothing,'' Flatley wrote. ''He asked me how we could have done that. I told him that there is no good explanation.''

Walter V. Robinson can be reached at wrobinson@globe.com.

This story ran on page A27 of the Boston Globe on 12/4/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
Advertise | Contact us | Privacy policy