The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


A 'classic misuse of power'

Children of woman who died in affair with priest speak out

By Stephen Kurkjian and Walter V. Robinson, Globe Staff, 12/29/2002

She was just a 3-year-old, asleep in her crib on a clear August night in 1973 when her mother took an overdose of barbiturates. By the time Needham police arrived at the modest split-level home at about 5 a.m., the 41-year-old woman was dead.

Her daughter, now 32, remembers nothing of that night. Even the lack of memory has haunted her: How, she has long wondered, could a mother who loved her four children take her life and leave her youngest alone and unattended?

On Dec. 5, to the shock of her and her three older brothers, some of those answers were unearthed in the archives of the Archdiocese of Boston.

Now, the four siblings know from church records that their mother, who was severely depressed, was a victim of yet another priest whose sexual misconduct was overlooked by his superiors. They know that the Rev. James D. Foley began a long and destructive affair with her after she went to him for counseling in the early 1960s.

They also know that Foley was with their mother that night in 1973, that he put his clothes on and left when she passed out from the pills, and that she died naked and without help -- just a mile and a half from Glover Memorial Hospital.

And they read Foley's account in the records that the daughter and the brother closest in age to her are the products of Foley's secret, decade-long affair with their mother.

They are convinced that their mother's clandestine affair aggravated her depression. She became obsessed with Foley, even to the point of visiting him in Calgary, Alberta, in 1966 and traveling with him to San Francisco, according to the records.

At the least, her children now say, Foley might have prevented her death had he not fled her home. If in fact his mother did commit suicide, says her oldest son, who was 16 when she died, it would be "assisted suicide."

The release of Foley's personnel file was the last in a series of disclosures about clergy sexual misconduct that prompted Cardinal Bernard F. Law's resignation a week later. At the time, it appeared to be a long-ago account without obvious victims: a priest who had an affair with a nameless woman, fathered two children, and fled in fear when she took a fatal overdose.

But within hours, her four children knew from television news reports that the account was about their family. The youngest son, who saw the report on Foley, said, "I was blown away, and I called my wife and told her, and I said, `I think this is my Mom."'

Before Christmas, the four -- who are now 32, 37, 43, and 45 years old -- discussed their bewilderment and anger in an interview with the Globe at the office of their attorney, Roderick MacLeish Jr. To protect their mother's memory and their father's privacy, they asked that their names not be used.

Much like those who were sexually abused by priests, they cannot understand why their church did nothing to put a stop to Foley's well-documented womanizing before it became too late for their mother.

Church reports about Foley's "double life" with women -- including their mother -- date to 1962, and made their way to Cardinal Richard J. Cushing in 1968 when Foley was banished from the Calgary diocese for his publicly known affairs with women. Nevertheless, the archdiocese that year gave Foley another parish assignment in Haverhill, where he began a long affair with another woman.

"Had the archdiocese acted more decisively with the information they had on Foley in the 1960s," said the second oldest son, who was 14 in 1973, "things might have worked out differently for my mother, and all of us."

The siblings, who remain Catholics, said they also cannot comprehend why Cardinal Bernard F. Law and Bishop John B. McCormack decided to keep Foley's secret and return him to a parish after they learned in 1993 how their mother died. The bishops' principal concern, according to the documents: That Foley's misconduct might become public.

"Criminal activity?" McCormack wrote in a note to himself recounting Foley's Dec. 23, 1993, admission to Law about the circumstances of the woman's death.

Now, that same question is being asked by investigators from the office of Norfolk District Attorney William F. Keating, who have opened an investigation into her death.

The children, meanwhile, are seeking their own answers. Recently, for instance, the youngest son was knocking on doors in the Needham neighborhood where the family lived in 1973, seeking anyone who might have seen something the night his mother died. No one did.

"My mother was a victim," said her second oldest son, who is a financial planner. "And she never had the ability to stand up for herself."

"And I think it's important we do that for her," added her youngest son.

The two youngest children said Foley's acknowledgment of paternity in the records is the least of their concerns. "My father is the man who raised us," said the brother who was born in 1965.

Their principal quest, they said, is to learn how -- and if possible, why -- their mother died.

But even as they seek more answers, the children are grief-stricken by such an unexpected turn of events. The youngest son is seeking counseling from his own pastor. The oldest, who has been active in his suburban parish, said that his own son refused to go to Sunday school when he was told. "He doesn't know how the church can hide all these facts and not care for the victims," the oldest son said.

On Friday, after learning about the family's anguish, Bishop Richard G. Lennon, who as the apostolic administrator has taken over from Law, said through a spokesman that he is willing to meet with them. "The archdiocese has a pastoral responsibility to this family, and we will not walk away from it," said the spokesman, the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne.

Foley, in an interview yesterday, said he is willing to share with the family -- through church officials -- details about his relationship with their mother and her death. The 69-year-old priest, who was placed on leave when the records became public, declined to answer questions from a Globe reporter.

The church records are perhaps most disturbing to the daughter. Unlike her brothers, she has no memories of her mother or that morning when Needham police officer Kevin R. Bolio, alerted to an emergency at the house by an anonymous call, found her mother dead and her crying in her crib.

In the church records of Foley's account, the priest returned to the house, found the woman dead, made the anonymous call, and apparently left before police arrived.

"I've asked myself so many times, `How could she do that to herself with her little girl in the crib?"' the daughter said.

Her parents had separated about a month before the death. Her youngest brother, then 8, was visiting his father at an apartment he had taken in Lynn. The two older brothers, 14 and 16, were at an overnight basketball camp in Wenham when their father drove there to tell them their mother had "killed herself," the oldest brother recalls.

Soon, the sons said they came to understand why their mother, who was a nurse, may have taken her life, even though she had never attempted suicide before. She had battled depression for many years. She saw psychiatrists, took medication, tried yoga, and even had surgery -- a lobotomy.

And she sought out Foley for counseling.

The children said that until Dec. 5, they had no inkling about her affair with Foley.

The records, however, hint that their father knew something. He declined to be interviewed, but the youngest son said he has told them that he "always had suspicions. ... Dad thought it was too friendly." But he said his father insists he had no knowledge that Foley and his wife were having an affair, or even why she wanted the separation.

"It brings up a lot of pain for him. He is dealing with this in his own way," said the youngest son.

Last summer, the daughter recalled, her father told her that he thought his wife named the youngest son after Foley when he was born in 1965.

In recent years, it has been the daughter who has pressed hardest to unlock details about the past. About four years ago, she said, she contacted Bolio, the police officer.

Bolio, she said, recalled that night. "And he asked me straight out, `Did your mother have a boyfriend?' I said, `No, I don't think so.' He indicated he thought there were some circumstances there. I have always wondered why did he say that," she said.

Citing the investigation, Bolio declined to be interviewed.

The 160-page church file on Foley leaves no doubt that he maintained a romantic relationship with their mother for years. It includes a 1995 letter in which Foley -- described by a friend and former priest last week as "film star handsome" -- spells out the steps he took to "create a sense of intimacy" with women who came to him for counseling.

The affair appears to have begun during Foley's first assignment at St. Bartholomew Church in Needham in the early 1960s. After serving less than two years at the church, Foley abruptly sought a transfer out of the area "on the advice of his confessor," according to a 1962 memo from a church official.

Foley, in an interview with the Globe on Dec. 5, confirmed that he had maintained a relationship with the woman for several years but said that he had tried to break it off numerous times. "I admit that I did not handle myself properly but she became obsessed with me and wouldn't let it end," he said.

But her children are skeptical about Foley's explanation.

"We're appalled that [she] reached out to a priest because she had some issues and he took advantage of her," said her second oldest son.

"He befriended her. Here was someone who was vulnerable," he said. "It was classic misuse of power. She had free will but it wasn't a clear playing field.

"My mother struggled with clinical depression for many years and during that time she had this illicit relationship with a priest," he said. "It doesn't do your mental health any good. ... How much of her problems were caused by this ongoing illicit relationship? We really don't know. But it couldn't have helped her recovery in dealing with it."

Foley's sexual misdeeds, so well documented by the archdiocese in the 1960s, appear from the records to have gone unnoticed until 1993, when he sought reappointment to another term as pastor of Our Lady of Fatima Church in Sudbury.

That is when McCormack wrote a memo about the Calgary incidents, which he dismissed as "growing up issues" for his seminary classmate.

But two days before Christmas in 1993, Foley met with Law and McCormack and told them about the circumstances of the Needham woman's death and that he had fathered her two youngest children. Earlier this month, Foley said in the interview that he was uncertain about the paternity issue.

"I can't say for sure. There was never any paternity tests done, of course," the priest said. However, he acknowledged that he resumed his relationship with her after returning from Calgary in 1968.

Foley was removed from his parish in 1994, and sent for residential treatment to a church-run facility in Ontario. And despite warnings from his therapists -- including one assessment that Foley was unstable and "highly charged sexually" -- Law approved his return to full ministry in late 1995.

The cardinal, the woman's children said, should have taken an entirely different tack.

"They should have called the authorities," said the second oldest son. "It was not their place to decide whether it was criminal or not. They decided to take it on themselves and not give us any chance to know the truth."

"We've lived for 29 years, ducking behind windows and doors because our mother, to our knowledge, committed suicide with no explanation," said his older brother, who helped care for his siblings afterward. "All we knew is that she died under weird circumstances."

His sister, who lay crying in her crib when Bolio arrived that morning 29 years ago, still yearns to know more. But she said she thinks she knows enough to reach a conclusion about Foley: "He could have prevented her death."

Stephen Kurkjian can be reached at

Walter V. Robinson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 12/29/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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