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Spotlight Report

He invoked religion for sexual acts

By Sacha Pfeiffer, Globe Staff, 12/4/2002

Rev. Robert V. Meffan

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Letter from Cardinal Law to Rev. Meffan  |  June 17, 1996

The documents are among the most remarkable in the 2,200 pages of once-secret church files released yesterday: allegations that a priest had initiated sexual acts with teenagers preparing to become nuns by encouraging them to believe they were making love to Jesus Christ himself.

Last night, the Rev. Robert V. Meffan admitted it was true, and said he still believes his sexual relationships with teenage girls were ''beautiful, spiritual'' experiences intended to bring young people closer to God.

''What I was trying to show them is that Christ is human and you should love him as a human being,'' said Meffan, 73, reached by phone at his Carver home. ''Don't think he's up there and he's spiritual and he's not human and physical. He's human, he's physical. That's what I was trying to point out to them. I felt that by having this little bit of intimacy with them that this is what it would be like with Christ.''

But Meffan said he put limits on the physical nature of the relationships. He touched the girls' breasts, for example, but stopped short of intercourse to protect his celibacy vow. ''I don't think that was destroyed,'' Meffan said, ''because I always felt that to destroy celibacy you really had to have intercourse.''

''I had developed a wonderful relationship of love with these people, a real solid relationship of love, and I had no intentions of ever hurting anybody and ever causing any problems,'' added Meffan, who was placed on leave by the Boston Archdiocese in 1993 and granted retirement in 1996. ''I was trying to get them to love Christ even more intimately and even more closely .... To me they were just wonderful, wonderful young people. It was a very beautiful, I thought, beautiful, spiritual relationship that was physical and sexual.''

The three women who reported Meffan to Boston church officials in the late 1980s and early 1990s, some coming forward only after years of counseling, described their experiences with him as nothing short of sexual abuse.

But despite those complaints, and a senior church official's conclusion that Meffan was unbalanced, Cardinal Bernard F. Law in 1996 had warm words for the priest as he approved his retirement.

''Without doubt over these years of generous care, the lives and hearts of many people have been touched by your sharing of the Lord's Spirit. We are truly grateful,'' Law wrote.

All three women made similar accusations: that Meffan, under the guise of spiritual counseling, had molested them about 25 years earlier when they were high school students and, later, when preparing to enter the convent. He encouraged them to ''be brides of Christ'' and described himself as ''the second coming of Christ,'' they said.

The women alleged that Meffan regularly invited them to his bedroom or visited them in their religious houses, where he would invite them to undress and ''link spiritual stages with sexual acts,'' including fondling, kissing of genitals, and encouraging them to ''mentally masturbate.'' He ''did anything'' but intercourse, one woman told church officials, because he said that was for ''the afterlife.''

One woman said Meffan ''used to suggest to her that she imagine Christ touching, kissing, having intercourse with her,'' according to church records of the allegations, which date to the 1960s and 1970s, when Meffan was assigned to Sacred Heart Parish in Weymouth, Metropolitan State Hospital in Waltham, and Our Lady of Good Counsel in Quincy. It was ''sick, delusional stuff,'' one woman said.

In the handwritten notes of one church official, one woman reported that Meffan became upset with her because she was not relaxed enough with him. ''He felt if Jesus was focus I wouldn't be tense,'' according to a church official's notes from the woman's account. ''He was very angry because I was so tense, which meant not holy ... . He said I didn't love him enough to hold him.''

Another woman alleged that other priests were aware of Meffan's involvement with teenage girls and even joked about it, calling Meffan's office ''the tank.''

And one woman said her primary motivation in coming forward was to make sure Meffan was no longer in a position where he could cultivate relationships with other underage women, church records show.

When confronted by church officials with the first complaint in 1986, Meffan denied the accusation, records show.

When additional allegations were made in 1993, Meffan's response was less defensive.

''Regarding the allegations, he denies any sexual motivation in his behavior,'' according to a church evaluation of Meffan stamped ''personal and confidential.''

''In hugging people, if he touched them on any sexual parts, it was accidental. He admits that he was hugged around his legs by a kneeling female, but notes that he was not sexually aroused.''

And while records describe the complaints of only three women, one of the three said she was ''sure there are other women,'' according to church files.

The archdiocese received its first indication about Meffan, who was ordained in 1953, in 1980, when a woman made an allegation referred to only vaguely in church records. The allegation was apparently not pursued further.

Four years later, Meffan attracted the attention of church officials again. In a Dec. 7, 1984, letter, Bishop Daniel A. Hart informed Cardinal Bernard F. Law that Meffan had said he ''has a `mission' confided to him by God which he is bound to keep secret ... This `mission' makes it impossible for him to accept any regular assignment from you.''

Hart's letter prompted Bishop John M. D'Arcy to write to Law on Jan. 24, 1985, declaring that Meffan, who was unassigned at the time, was not ''balanced'' and ''could really harm us.''

Still, Law reassigned Meffan to St. Thecla Parish in Pembroke in December 1985, where he remained until Law placed him on leave in July 1993.

In June 1996, Meffan was granted ''senior priest/retirement status'' but with restrictions on his role as a priest. The following month, Meffan sent Law an essay in which he lamented his removal from public ministry, calling himself ''a prisoner of love in a cell of allegations.''

In a reply letter, Law called Meffan's essay ''a beautiful testament to the depth of your faith and the courage of your heart .... You have touched me deeply, Bob.''

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 12/4/2002.
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