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Spotlight Report

Spotlight Report   FOLLOW-UP

Church faulted on pace of probes

Lawyers for accused see little progress

By Walter V. Robinson and Stephen Kurkjian, Globe Staff, 9/23/2002

 In-depth
Accused of abuse and absolved, Msgr. Michael Smith Foster returned to parish work sobered by his experience.  
Coverage of the Foster case
It has been more than five weeks since Paul R. Edwards accused Monsignor Michael Smith Foster and the late Rev. William J. Cummings of sexually abusing him in the early 1980s. But in all that time, more than a dozen people who insist they have evidence that will disprove the accusation against Cummings say they have never been contacted by archdiocesan investigators.

''Obviously, if Paul has made a false claim against Father Cummings - false because the incident could not have happened - then it totally undermines his credibility on what he says about Monsignor Foster,'' said Sharon Phinney, one of those witnesses.

The church's failure to investigate the claim against Cummings is by no means an aberration: Two months since the Rev. Victor C. LaVoie was removed as pastor of St. Eulalia's Church in Winchester for a single allegation of abuse that occurred 20 years ago, church officials have not sought to interview the alleged victim, according to Ronald A. Martignetti, LaVoie's attorney.

The church, Martignetti said, has also turned aside his efforts to obtain information about the charges. He said the Rev. Sean M. Connor, the archdiocese's lead investigator, referred him to Wilson D. Rogers Jr., the church attorney. But Martignetti said Rogers has not returned his calls.

And a lawyer for the Rev. William L. Butler, a Revere priest who was placed on leave last month after an abuse allegation dating to 1966 was made against him, said he too has run into a wall of silence as he repeatedly asks the archdiocese for details about the accusation, about the governing canon law, and about how the church plans to proceed in its investigation.

The contrast between the church's newfound speed in suspending priests accused of abuse since the clergy abuse scandal came to light in January and the glacial pace of its follow-up investigations is stunning to investigators outside the church. Dan Small, a former federal prosecutor who has conducted internal investigations for public agencies, as well as private companies, said it is ''outrageous'' for the Archdiocese of Boston to suspend priests and then not move quickly to determine their guilt or innocence.

''It appears that no one is driving this train,'' Small said.

''Automatically suspending people is appropriate in many of these cases. But if you are going to do that, you have an absolute responsibility to follow up and quickly investigate,'' Small said. ''Yet here it is months later and in some cases it appears they haven't even picked up the phone.''

The archdiocese declined comment on the status of the cases, or to offer specifics about how they are being investigated.

The archdiocese's failure to pursue evidence in the Cummings case has compromised Foster's ability to counter the allegation against him by pointing to doubts about Edwards's credibility - doubts that have already been publicly aired. Edwards's own attorney abandoned the case and Edwards dropped his lawsuit against both priests after a Globe story Aug. 27 raised serious questions about the veracity of his accusations. On Sept. 10, Cardinal Bernard F. Law personally informed Foster, the archdiocese's chief canon lawyer, that he had been exonerated. Four days later, the archdiocese reversed that decision after Edwards met with church officials and reiterated his allegations against Foster.

Archdiocesan officials have refused to explain why the charge against Cummings has been ignored. But William F. Sharkey Jr., who served with Cummings at Our Lady Help of Christians church in Newton in the 1980s and later left the priesthood to marry, said he was told last week that the Cummings matter is not being pursued because there is no formal accusation against the dead priest now that Edwards has withdrawn his lawsuit.

He said he was told that by a friend, the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, who, as an archdiocesan spokesman, is privy to information about the investigation. Coyne, in an interview, confirmed that he conveyed that information to Sharkey. Asked if the conclusion that there is no need for a Cummings probe means that Edwards is no longer asserting that Cummings raped him, Coyne replied that he did not know.

Since Feb. 2, the church has publicly announced that 23 priests, Foster among them, have been placed on leave because of allegations against them. The archdiocese has pledged to make its findings public, but has yet to say whether any of the cases have been resolved.

Many of the 23 priests face accusations from more than one victim. And at least some of the priests who were summoned to the chancery admitted that the charges against them were true, according to an archdiocesan official who spoke on the condition he not be identified, effectively resolving their own cases. But the archdiocese has made no public announcement of case findings. The archdiocese says it is holding off until the Vatican rules on the ''zero tolerance'' policy that American bishops adopted at their June meeting in Dallas - a policy that would forbid anyone deemed to have committed sexual abuse to serve as a priest.

In almost half of the 23 cases, however, the allegations are the first against the priests, many of whom have strenuously denied the charges. The charges also often date to incidents that allegedly occurred 30 or 40 years ago.

Donna M. Morrissey, an archdiocesan spokeswoman, did not respond for more than three weeks to a list of questions from the Globe about the status of the investigations, including a question asking how many church investigators are involved. After finally promising to respond to the questions, she faxed a statement to the Globe last week saying the church would have nothing to say.

By all accounts, the Boston Archdiocese has been besieged since the scandal broke in January. And no office has been more overwhelmed than the Delegate's Office, which is charged with investigating complaints against priests. The office is understaffed and, according to archdiocesan officials, is ill-equipped to handle the task. Over the last several months, it has had three directors. The first, the Rev. Charles J. Higgins, was replaced. Then the Rev. David P. White, a former Boston police detective lieutenant, asked to leave after less than two months. The present director, Connor, who was ordained last year, was a Marshfield police patrolman for about three years.

James F. O'Brien, an attorney who is helping three of the accused priests, including LaVoie, has been so frustrated by the inaction that he has written the Vatican to complain. ''The Cardinal and his delegates, most of whom are young, unschooled and inexperienced priests, are acting with total disregard for the human dignity of these accused priests and in clear violation of the norm of law,'' O'Brien wrote to Cardinal Dario Catrillon Hoyos, who heads the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy.

O'Brien made a copy of his letter available to the Globe.

Like no other case, the accusations against Foster and Cummings have focused public attention on the struggles of the Delegate's Office.

The allegation against Foster is the more difficult to disprove, because Edwards, 35, has accused Foster of molesting him numerous times over five years in his rectory bedroom at Sacred Heart Church in Newton.

Sacred Heart's pastor and rectory employees from those years have, however, said it would not have been possible for Edwards to have spent any appreciable time on the rectory's second floor without being noticed. For those reasons, and because Edwards has a long history of telling false tales, Foster's friends are certain the charges against the monsignor are false. Foster has denied the allegations.

And, although the archdiocese has shown little interest in pursuing it, the single allegation against Cummings appears even more questionable. In his lawsuit, Edwards asserted that he was assigned to sleep in the same hotel room with Cummings during a December 1982 trip to New York City sponsored by the youth group at Our Lady's. During the night, Edwards charged, Cummings raped him. Yet more than a dozen past and present parishioners at Our Lady's - teens who went on the annual New York trips as well as adult chaperones - have told the Globe the incident could not have happened as Edwards describes it because the parish's annual December trip was always a day trip. Moreover, Cummings didn't arrive at Our Lady's until June 1983.

Judith McKie, whose children were active in the Catholic Youth Organization at Our Lady's, said she chaperoned some trips in 1983 or 1984. She adamantly rejected Edwards's accusation.

Despite the availability of such evidence, it is now apparent that the church reached its decision to exonerate Foster, and then changed its mind, without ever vetting the accusation against Cummings, who died in 1994.

Phinney said it is ''insane'' that church officials have not contacted her or others who have evidence that, she said, would clear Cummings. Even the Rev. Arthur M. Calter, a retired priest who was Cummings's pastor at Our Lady's during the period when Edwards said Cummings raped him, said that he has not been contacted by the archdiocese.

That lapse has astonished friends of both priests.

''I would be happy to talk to the archdiocese, but they haven't called,'' said Sharkey.

Sharkey, who confirmed that the New York trips were not overnights, said he never saw any indication that Cummings behaved inappropriately with children.

''If I thought there was anything like that going on, I would have been the first to say so - then or now,'' Sharkey said.

Edwards, who has refused to be interviewed, did not return telephone calls to his Winchendon home last week seeking comment.

Sacha Pfeiffer of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. Walter Robinson can be contacted at wrobinson@globe.com. Stephen Kurkjian can be contacted at kurkjian@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 9/23/2002.
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