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Spotlight Report

Lennon gave advice on reassigned priest

By Michael Rezendes and Stephen Kurkjian, Globe Staff, 2/5/2003


Bishop Richard G. Lennon (Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan)


John M. Picardi

Armed with opinions from the Rev. Richard G. Lennon, the Boston Archdiocese decided in the 1990s that it was powerless to punish a priest who had admitted raping another man, and that the priest was entitled to a hearing on whether he should be restored to full ministry.

Because of those decisions, and despite allegations of inappropriate contact with minors, the Rev. John M. Picardi was allowed to return to parish work as a priest on loan to the Diocese of Phoenix, where he had moved.

Yesterday, the Phoenix diocese suspended Picardi from the Flagstaff, Ariz., parish where he was an associate pastor. A spokeswoman for the Phoenix diocese and the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, a spokesman for Lennon, said the earlier decisions allowing Picardi's transfer will be reviewed. If they are reversed, it would be done by Lennon, the bishop and canon law expert who became temporary leader of the Boston Archdiocese after Cardinal Bernard F. Law resigned in December.

Lennon told the Globe on Dec. 18 of last year that he never had any documents detailing the offenses of any accused priests. But in a Sept. 26, 1995 memo, Lennon wrote that he had reviewed Picardi's file. A memo the following month noted: ''Our files indicate that Father Picardi raped the 27-year-old man and admitted that fact.'' The word ''raped'' was underlined in the memo.

Lennon also told the Globe in December that he knew ''zero . . . nothing'' about the extent of sexual abuse among archdiocesan priests. The Picardi transfer represents the second known case in which Lennon played a knowledgeable, if only supporting, role.

Coyne said that Lennon, as assistant for canonical affairs, was called upon only to give canon law advice. On the rape issue, for example, Coyne said Lennon was simply warning his superiors that since they initially decided to take no action against Picardi, double jeopardy protections in canon law prevented them from punishing him for the offense.

Roderick MacLeish Jr., a lawyer who is representing many of the victims suing the archdiocese, said it was ''too early to tell'' whether Lennon had misrepresented himself in his December statements. However, MacLeish said, ''Now that he is apostolic administrator, Bishop Lennon has an obligation to make certain that there are no Boston priests currently assigned to other dioceses who had been accused of rape or other sexual misconduct. He has an obligation to the people in these other dioceses to review these past cases.''

The Picardi documents were among the files on five priests that were made public yesterday by MacLeish, who is representing alleged victims of the Rev. Paul R. Shanley. In more than one case, they involved the movement of priests who had been accused of sexual misconduct from Boston to other dioceses, and from other dioceses to here.

In 1998, for example, Law certified to officials in the Palm Beach, Fla., diocese that the Rev. Richard G. Johnson, who was moving to that diocese, was a priest in good standing, a man ''of good character and reputation.'' Law did not mention that Johnson had been accused of repeatedly fondling a 15-year-old girl, or that he had a known history of sexual involvement with adult women.

When the Palm Beach diocese learned of the accusations yesterday, officials suspended Johnson's right to work as a priest there.

Picardi's troubles began in 1992, when a friend complained that Picardi raped him orally in a Florida hotel room. Church records show that Picardi admitted it. Bishop Alfred C. Hughes, then Law's top deputy, wrote that ''J.P. [Picardi] admitted raping'' the friend.

The Rev. John B. McCormack, then a top aide to Law and now bishop of the Manchester, N.H., diocese, dismissed it as a ''single incident,'' offering that view even though the alleged rape victim had accused Picardi of also having inappropriate contact with minors. McCormack recommended that Picardi be allowed to serve temporarily in the Paterson, N.J., diocese after treatment at a counseling center. McCormack told the Paterson diocese only that Picardi ''admits to a sexual incident with an adult male in Florida.''

In New Jersey, Picardi faced another accusation in 1995, in which he was alleged to have inappropriately touched a fifth-grade girl. It was then that Lennon became involved, urging that Boston, and not Paterson, take up the charge against him.

In the September 1995 memo, Lennon appeared to express concern that allowing the Paterson diocese to investigate might cause a scandal. ''. . . Opening such an investigation runs the real risk of negative fall-out both for Father Picardi and for the Church,'' Lennon wrote.

On Oct. 6, 1995, Law received a memo from another aide, the Rev. Brian M. Flatley, noting that Picardi had admitted to the 1992 rape. ''However, we allowed him to return to ministry in Paterson after that incident. . . . Because of this, according to Father Lennon, canon law does not allow us to use this incident to keep Father Picardi out of ministry now.''

In January 1996, Law's review board considered Picardi's case, and recommended he ''not be returned to parish ministry or to other ministry that involves minors.'' It also said Picardi should consider seeking laicization, or removal from the priesthood.

But Picardi appealed the decision to the Vatican, according to the documents. And Law -- with more input from Lennon -- began seeking a compromise, writing Picardi that he hoped for a ''resolution to these issues that will be beneficial to us all.'' According to the records, Lennon gave his approval to that letter.

Two weeks later, on April 3, 1997, the Rev. William F. Murphy wrote that Law has ''continued to express discomfort with the recommendation that this priest be restricted to the extent that he is'' and asks that the case be reexamined. ''His opinion is reinforced by that of Bishop William Murphy and Fr. Richard Lennon.''

Coyne said Lennon was merely pointing out that Picardi had a canon law right to have his case reassessed by the Review Board.

Contradicting the 1996 recommendation, Murphy wrote to the board: ''It seems impossible to conclude that the priest engaged in activity which would warrant his being removed from parish ministry. I recommend that . . . priest be free to return to parish ministry, and that his direct superior in ministry be informed of the nature of this allegation.''

The board agreed, voting that there was ''not enough evidence to support a finding of sexual misconduct with a minor.''

The decision cleared the way for Picardi to become a parish priest again, this time on loan to the Phoenix diocese.

In a 1997 letter to Phoenix Bishop Thomas D. O'Brien, Law referred to the 1992 Florida rape only as ''homosexual behavior,'' and said it was ''impossible to say'' if the incident with the New Jersey girl ''constituted abuse.''

Law testified during a deposition on Monday that the alleged rape was nothing more than ''homosexual behavior,'' according to Paula Ford, the mother of an alleged sexual abuse victim, who witnessed the deposition.

Picardi, in a brief telephone conversation, declined comment.

In addition, the records, along with previously released church files, show that Law and McCormack also welcomed an accused cleric from the Anchorage, Alaska, archdiocese, assigning him to priestly duties in the Boston area without informing parishioners or even lower-level church officials of the allegations against him. In 1986, Monsignor Francis A. Murphy faced potential criminal charges for sexual abuse of a 16-year-old and for financial improprieties -- unless he left the Anchorage archdiocese. It was McCormack who took the lead in securing work for Murphy.

''Frank cannot return to his diocese of Anchorage because of police interest in him,'' McCormack explained in a 1986 memo to Auxiliary Bishop Robert J. Banks, adding that a treatment facility had found that ''a major issue with Frank was sexual in addition to the alcohol.''

McCormack spoke up for Murphy in spite of concerns raised by Banks. For instance, in another 1986 memo, McCormack told Banks he had arranged for Murphy to receive training as a hospital chaplain at the former Bon Secours Hospital in Methuen, along with the Rev. Paul J. Tivnan, another priest facing sexual misconduct allegations.

''I really don't want Frank to become a part of the archdiocese,'' Banks replied in a handwritten note. ''God help us when Bon Secours finds that two priests there have the same problem!''

Nevertheless, Murphy remained at Bon Secours, now known as the Holy Family Hospital and Medical Center, until 1995, when Anchorage officials raised the possibility of negative publicity from a new sexual abuse allegation, prompting the Boston Archdiocese to relieve Murphy of his chaplaincy.

Bishop Francis T. Hurley, the retired Anchorage archbishop, asked if it was the practice of Catholic bishops to accept priests who had molested minors from other dioceses, said, ''I don't want to generalize, but I did it.'' In the Boston Archdiocese, there have been at least five other accused priests who have been allowed to work as priests in other dioceses, and at least one other known child molester who was allowed to transfer in.

A.W. Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former priest who has written extensively on clergy sex abuse, said he is aware of dozens of instances of accused priests being transferred from one diocese to another, sometimes multiple times, and frequently with no restrictions on their ministry.

In all of those cases, he said, ''The common denominator is scandal and how to get rid of the scandal as quickly as possible.''

Sacha Pfeiffer of the Globe staff contributed to this story.

Michael Rezendes can be reached at rezendes@globe.com. Stephen Kurkjian can be reached at kurkjian@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 2/5/2003.
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