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Spotlight Report

Priest left US after admission in sex case

By Stephen Kurkjian and John Ellement, Globe Staff, 1/14/2004

A year after the Archdiocese of Boston adopted a new policy on handling allegations of clergy sexual abuse in the 1990s, an Australian priest who had admitted having sex with a teenager abruptly left the archdiocese and the country, short-circuiting a potential investigation by police and child welfare authorities, according to documents filed yesterday in Suffolk Superior Court.

Documents from the archdiocese's own files show that the Rev. Barry Robinson returned to Australia in April 1994 without being questioned by civil authorities even though Robinson had acknowledged to his therapist in March that he had had sexual relations with a teenage boy on three occasions in the rectory of Blessed Sacrament Church in Jamaica Plain.

Although he believed that Robinson's therapist had notified the state of the sexual relationship, the Rev. John B. McCormack, then the archdiocese's principal officer dealing with clergy sexual-abuse allegations, made no attempt to stop Robinson from making a quick departure from Boston, according to the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, spokesman for the Boston Archdiocese.

McCormack later advised church officials in Australia that the case against Robinson was dead, according to the court documents.

"Assure Barry that no further steps have been taken regarding any civil complaint," McCormack wrote to a Melbourne church official in July 1994, three months after Robinson left Boston. And later that year, McCormack assured the same official in a second letter: "There have been no repercussions since Barry left. At one time, the civil authorities were looking for further information about him, but were unsuccessful, to my knowledge."

McCormack, now bishop of the Manchester, N.H., Diocese, declined through his attorney to comment on the church records.

Although church records quote Robinson as saying that the youth was 16 years old at the time of the encounters, investigators wanted to question the teenager to verify his age as well as determine whether Robinson may have coerced him into having sex. If the boy was 16, he would have been of the then-legal age of consent.

However, according to a spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, the archdiocese refused at the time to provide information on the youth's identity. The name of the youth was redacted from the papers filed in court yesterday.

In addition to admitting to a therapist and church officials to having been sexually involved with the teenager, Robinson also acknowledged that he had engaged in sexual "misconduct" when assigned as a priest in Chile from 1979 to 1985, a church official in Australia said in a statement.

Coyne defended McCormack's handling of the Robinson case yesterday. He said that as soon as archdiocese officials learned of the relationship, they barred Robinson from celebrating Mass in any Boston church. When the teenager's parents were informed of Robinson's admission by the church, they declined offers of counseling or assistance, saying they wanted the matter to remain confidential, Coyne said, quoting from church documents.

As for the decision by McCormack and other church officials not to relay Robinson's admission to authorities, Coyne said the archdiocese believed that Robinson's therapist had referred the case, pointing out that Massachusetts law did not mandate until 2002 that clergy report allegations of sexual abuse of minors to authorities.

McCormack had no control over Robinson to prevent his return to Australia, Coyne said. "That was a decision made by Robinson and his archbishop" in Melbourne, Coyne said.

A year before the Robinson case, Cardinal Bernard F. Law, with McCormack as his deputy, initiated a policy for the Boston Archdiocese for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse by priests.

Law disregarded requests from victims that the new policy mandate that such allegations be forwarded to law enforcement, but he said the church would not oppose such reporting if it assisted the alleged victim. "We certainly will not be averse to reporting . . . if it were indicated that this would be a helpful thing," Law said.

Conley chided archdiocesan officials this week for not reporting Robinson's admission in 1994, saying the church had a "moral obligation" to make certain that the case was investigated. "This does appear to be an example of how poorly these things were handled a decade ago," Conley said.

Even though the archdiocese never informed the district attorney's office of Robinson's conduct, Conley said, the state Department of Social Services did. But the probe was stymied when investigators sought to interview Robinson and were told that he had left the country.

The church did not provide the alleged victim's name, according to David Procopio, Conley's spokesman.

Monsignor Les Tomlinson, vicar general for the Melbourne Archdiocese, said in response to written questions yesterday that Robinson had not been contacted by law enforcement authorities once he arrived back in Australia.

Although Robinson's departure halted the statute of limitations on any crime he may have committed, Conley said prosecuting him now is unlikely.

Conley said that when authorities eventually did interview the youth -- in 2002, after the parish priest to whom Robinson had admitted the relationship contacted them -- the youth refused to cooperate.

Lawyer Roderick MacLeish Jr., whose law firm, Greenberg Traurig, filed the records in court yesterday in connection with ongoing civil cases against the Rev. Paul Shanley and other priests, criticized the handling of the Robinson case by church officials.

MacLeish said late yesterday that he intended to ask a Superior Court judge to allow him to depose McCormack and other church officials on their handling of the Robinson case. MacLeish said he was particularly interested in determining whether church officials in Boston and Melbourne obstructed justice by facilitating Robinson's sudden departure.

MacLeish said McCormack's notes show that a private lawyer in Boston was going to be consulted on Robinson's behalf to determine his "freedom and propriety to return to Australia."

McCormack wrote that Robinson's admissions to a confidante at St. Elizabeth's Medical Center in Brighton, where he had been taken due to mental distress, might be "legally discoverable."

In the same memorandum, which he wrote after visiting Robinson in the hospital in mid-March, McCormack said Robinson planned to remain in the Boston area -- and housing would have to be found for him -- until there was a "pastoral resolve" to the case.

Robinson arrived back in Melbourne by April 10, however, abandoning tentative plans to seek treatment at a mental health facility for clergy in Maryland.

He is now an assistant pastor at a parish in the Melbourne Archdiocese. Following examination and treatment, Robinson was allowed to return to ministry in 1997 and now operates under supervision and "safeguards" recommended by several psychiatrists and the head of an independent commission appointed to handle allegations against priests.


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