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Spotlight Report

O'Malley defends allowing priest to stay in mission posting

By Stephen Kurkjian and Walter V. Robinson, Globe Staff, 7/2/2003

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 The James Porter case
Bishop O'Malley led the Fall River diocese during the James Porter sex abuse scandal in the early 1990s.  
Coverage from the archives

 The predecessor
Coverage of Law's resignation

Fall River priest was allowed to continue as a missionary in Bolivia for eight years after Bishop Sean P. O'Malley was told by a woman that she had been sexually molested by the priest for seven years beginning when she was 9, a spokesman for the Fall River Diocese confirmed last night.

The priest, the Rev. Donald J. Bowen, was not removed from his ministry with the Society of St. James the Apostle until he was indicted last September for the alleged sexual molestation of the woman. Bowen is awaiting trial.

John Kearns, the diocesan spokesman, said that after O'Malley met with the woman in 1994, he sought and received assurances from Bowen's superiors in Latin America that he had no unsupervised access to children. ''Bishop O'Malley demanded that guarantee and received it,'' Kearns said.

O'Malley, reached by telephone last night, defended his handling of the Bowen case, saying his actions conformed to ''the letter of the policy'' he had instituted in 1992 to deal with allegations of abuse against priests.

At the time, according to Kearns and O'Malley, the diocese's strict sexual abuse policy required that even old allegations be reported to authorities, that offenders be removed from parish ministry, and that they receive psychological evaluation.

In Bowen's case, there was reason to believe at the time O'Malley met with the woman, who was then in her 30s, that the charges against the priest were credible. The Fall River Diocese, in January 1992, settled a civil sexual abuse lawsuit brought by the woman. O'Malley became bishop of Fall River in August 1992.

O'Malley acknowledged last night that he did not report Bowen to civil authorities - either the Department of Social Services or the Bristol County District Attorney's office - because the woman was no longer a minor when she brought the allegation to his attention.

''The law mandates reporting of any allegation of abuse of a minor. The woman was no longer a minor. That's why we didn't report it,'' O'Malley said.

O'Malley said he was assured by the Boston head of the Society of St. James that Bowen would have no access to children and would not perform any other priestly duties like celebrating Mass. Bowen, he was told, was working on a history of the Society and its work in Bolivia.

''To me, that meant he was removed from parish ministry, which is what my policy required,'' O'Malley said. In addition, he said he was assured by the Society of St. James superior that Bowen would receive periodic psychological counseling and evaluation.

There are no known allegations of abuse by Bowen during his 30 years in Bolivia.

Earlier yesterday, before the Globe asked Kearns about the Bowen case, the spokesman said that even when an old allegation was brought to O'Malley's attention by a victim or some other means, ''he treated it the same way as he treated new allegations: vigorously pursue them and, if there was any credibility to them, seek removal from service.''

Even though Bowen had been doing missionary work since 1971, he remained a priest of the Fall River Diocese and under the direct control of O'Malley as diocesan bishop, according to two canon lawyers.

The handling of Bowen's case appears to be a puzzling aberration for O'Malley. In 1992, he was hailed for his swift, soothing treatment of scores of victims of pedophile priest James R. Porter, for helping facilitate settlement of their claims, and for becoming one of the first American bishops to devise new policies covering reporting of abuse, removal, and treatment of offending priests and training of all diocesan employees.

At the time, there was no national policy by US bishops for handling sexual abuse cases. O'Malley drew praise for both formulating the policy and for seeking input from the public and victims.

O'Malley's Fall River record is now widely seen as a major reason he has been chosen to head the nation's most troubled archdiocese.

But he did, in one recent instance, face criticism on the issue. Just as O'Malley was preparing to leave Fall River to become bishop of Palm Beach last September, Bristol County District Attorney Paul F. Walsh Jr. accused O'Malley and his aides of impeding Walsh's efforts to obtain information about priests who had molested children.

In response, O'Malley issued a statement insisting that the diocese had cooperated fully with the prosecutor's requests for records about abusive priests. But at the time, prosecutors said the diocese had provided little information about some of the abusive priests and nothing at all about some others.

In one instance, prosecutors said last October, the diocese did not disclose to Walsh's office that allegations had been made against the Rev. Edward Paquette. When prosecutors confronted diocesan officials, they said Paquette was dead. To prove it, they provided a death certificate.

The death certificate was for Paquette's father. Father Paquette, who left the active priesthood long before O'Malley arrived in Fall River, is 74 and living in Westfield.

When Walsh cited the alleged recalcitrance of the diocese last year, he also made public the names of 20 priests from the Fall River diocese who had been credibly accused of sexual abuse since the 1950s, but whose cases were too old to prosecute. And he announced the indictment of Bowen, for alleged sexual abuse that did not end until shortly before Bowen became a missionary.

The Bowen indictment was made possible because the priest had left the state, and the statute of limitations on the alleged crime was therefore frozen in time. After the indictment, Bowen returned to Bristol County to face the charges.

Of the 20 priests, two were removed as pastors by O'Malley last year when allegations against them surfaced.

When the district attorney criticized O'Malley last fall and took the unusual step of making public the names of priests who are not being charged, O'Malley reiterated the breadth of his policy.

''When I came to Fall River, I was unaware of old cases of child abuse. I was focused on the Porter case and how to establish policies to ensure the safety of our children,'' O'Malley said in the statement on Sept. 28. ''After the policies were in place, I tried to bring any past cases that came to my attention into conformity with those policies.''

Not until last year were clergy first required under state law to report cases of suspected sexual abuse of minors. But in a separate statement Sept. 26, O'Malley said that during his 10 years in Fall River, the diocese ''committed itself voluntarily to follow the reporting laws'' of the state.

Kearns, asked about that yesterday, said: ''The bishop said that any old case that he became aware of he treated under the current policy which was to make all referrals to civil authorities.''

Last September, however, O'Malley said he would have turned over the names of the 20 priests earlier ''if I had any indication that civil authorities were interested in prosecuting these older cases.''

Kearns, in the interview yesterday, said O'Malley did not conduct a full review of diocesan priest personnel files after he arrived in 1992. That was because there was no sense that there was any major problem, Kearns said.

Asked why O'Malley would not have ordered a full review of personnel files, Kearns said: ''It was only last year that anyone knew the extent of the problem involving other priests. Before that, the priority was instituting a policy that would deal vigorously with new allegations, which is what Bishop O'Malley concentrated on here in Fall River.''

Kathleen Hennrikus and Matt Carroll of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.Stephen Kurkjian's e-mail address is kurkjian@globe.com. Walter Robinson's e-mail address is wrobinson@globe.com.

This story ran on page A26 of the Boston Globe on 7/2/2003.
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