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Spotlight Report

Spotlight Report   FOLLOW-UP

Priest abuse case eluded Law's reforms

By Michael Rezendes, Globe Staff, 2/19/2002

Paul J. Mahan

Letters by the Boston Archdiocese and a sworn deposition show church officials knew that Catholic priest Paul J. Mahan posed a risk to young teenagers.
See letters

hatever past shortcomings he has acknowledged, Cardinal Bernard F. Law has pointed to a rigorous new policy to remove dangerous priests from service that he implemented in January 1993. Since then, he has said, the Boston Archdiocese has taken seriously its responsibility to protect children from sexual predators.

It was the same year, 1993, after sexual abuse complaints spanning several years, that the church finally removed the Rev. Paul J. Mahan from St. Matthew Church in Dorchester and sent him for treatment. The diagnosis: He was sexually attracted to young teenage boys.

But after getting that diagnosis, the archdiocese assigned Mahan to Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Cambridge for much of the following year.

Indeed, Mahan had little supervision over the next four years, even though church officials were warned in 1994 that he was ''untreatable'' and likely to resume his sexual pursuit of teenagers, according to confidential church documents and a deposition of one archdiocesan official obtained by the Globe Spotlight Team.

In a 1995 letter from the Boston Archdiocese marked ''personal and confidential,'' the Rev. Brian M. Flatley told Mahan that ''the Cardinal was informed that you were at great risk'' of reoffending. According to a lawsuit charging Mahan with sexual abuse, Mahan was molesting one of his nephews the same year.

That boy was allegedly being molested two years after the archdiocese learned that Mahan had a compulsive attraction to boys, something the church had never told Mahan's family. The boy's parents had sent the nephew to stay with him in Marblehead because they thought Mahan would be a stable influence, according to Joseph Abromovitz, the lawyer representing the nephew.

In 1997 there was evidence that Mahan could be molesting teenagers. His sister, Joan Segota, alerted a Law deputy that Mahan was bringing teenage boys to a family home in Marblehead. She urged church officials to have him institutionalized.

Instead, Mahan was cut loose from the church, defrocked by Law, that year. Despite Segota's plea, her brother has since been living an anonymous life without supervision in an Arlington, Va., apartment building, and working in a McLean, Va., Radio Shack store.

Reached last night at the store, Mahan declined to comment.

According to the documents, Mahan himself recognized the incorrigible nature of his yearnings. In a July 1997 handwritten note produced by the church, Mahan described himself to someone who apparently was taking notes of a conversation with him as a ''sleaze'' and lamented: ''My disease runs so deep I can't be trusted.''

At a time when the archdiocese was secretly settling claims of past sexual abuse involving scores of other priests, the Mahan case alone raises questions about the adequacy of the preventive measures instituted by Law in 1993. In an interview yesterday, Marblehead police Detective Sergeant Marion Keating said that Mahan is under criminal investigation for alleged sexual abuse in 1995.

In a statement issued to the Globe yesterday, however, Donna M. Morrissey, spokeswoman for the archdiocese, defended the church's handling of Mahan. ''In general, Cardinal Law's actions with regard to Mahan underscore the sincerity of his continuing efforts during the past nine years to reform the archdiocese's policies and procedures to protect children,'' she said.

Over time, the church's response to allegations against Mahan was similar in some ways to the way it handled accusations of sexual abuse against former priest and convicted child molester John J. Geoghan. It paid insufficient attention to complaints during the 1980s and then, after the 1992 scandal surrounding molestations by former priest James R. Porter, implemented measures that proved ineffective. Both men continued to molest children in the years after they were removed from their parishes in 1993.

For instance, in a sworn answer to interrogatories, Mahan said that at least one of the sexual abuse allegations against him was investigated by Bishop Robert J. Banks, adding that he knew of no church action taken against him as a result.

In 1989, Banks, who is now bishop of the Green Bay, Wis., diocese, had Geoghan reassigned to St. Julia Parish in Weston, even though Geoghan had been diagnosed with pedophilia, the sexual attraction to prepubescent boys.

Today, Mahan is facing 13 civil lawsuits accusing him of sexual abuse. His alleged victims say they were molested by him during most of the quarter century that he was an active parish priest.

By defrocking Mahan, 59, as he did Geoghan, Law has effectively shorn the archdiocese of any responsibility for Mahan's actions over the last five years.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said that when the church defrocks a priest, it is often seeking to ''limit its financial and public relations losses'' while ignoring the priest's victims.

''In many ways, defrocking is the most selfish and simplistic response,'' Clohessy said. ''There is a continuing responsibility for the offending priest, as well as his victims, their families, and Catholics in general, because everybody has been hurt by the abuse.''

History of abuse

The lawsuits against Mahan allege that he began molesting children soon after his 1968 ordination, when he became a popular priest at St. Ann Church in Dorchester. The abuse allegedly continued during his second assignment, from 1979 to 1982, when he served at St. Joseph's in Needham; and during his assignment as pastor at St. Matthew's from 1982 to 1993.

Mahan had ready access to minors in each of his posts: as director of a Boy Scout troop, a summer camp, and at least two grade schools, according to the suits. Several victims say Mahan molested them while at sea on a sailboat that either he or his family owned in Marblehead.

By the late 1980s, church officials were aware of sexual misconduct allegations against Mahan, according to archdiocesan documents obtained by the Globe (which reflect only a fraction of its records on Mahan) but did little about them.

In a sworn deposition, the Rev. Charles J. Higgins, the church official who handles sexual misconduct allegations against priests, said a student at the former Don Bosco High School made a sexual misconduct allegation against Mahan to the state Department of Social Services in 1987.

Higgins said DSS dismissed the complaint but did not say why the state took no action. He also said he did not know whether church officials investigated the complaint independently.

After the Don Bosco allegation, Higgins said, two more individuals made anonymous sexual misconduct allegations against Mahan to the archdiocese. When asked if the church took any administrative action against Mahan as a result, Higgins replied, ''Yes.'' But when asked to elaborate, he replied that Mahan was ''told of the complaints against him.''

After two additional sexual misconduct allegations in 1993, which roughly coincided with the Porter scandal, Mahan, like many other accused priests in the archdiocese, was placed on administrative leave and sent to the St. Luke Institute in Maryland for an evaluation.

Even though clinicians found that Mahan was an ephebophile (sexually attracted to young teenage boys), church officials assigned him to Sacred Heart Church. A volunteer at the church said Friday that its pastor, the Rev. John P. Tackney, would not respond to questions about Mahan. Tackney was the pastor in 1993 and 1994.

Mahan's next stop was Southdown, a residential facility in Canada that specializes in treating priests who molested children. After six months, Mahan was released by doctors who warned the archdiocese that he was untreatable and likely to resume his sexual pursuit of underage teenagers.

The warning proved to be prophetic. According to a lawsuit filed by two of Mahan's nephews and their mother, Mahan sexually molested the younger nephew between 1993 and 1995, when the boy was 11 to 13 years of age.

The lawsuit also contends that Mahan molested the boy's older brother, from about 1989 to about 1993, in the rectory at St. Matthew's in Dorchester and at Mahan's Marblehead home.

According to the suit, Mahan routinely asked each of his nephews to ''share a bed'' with him. And a church document says that on one occasion, a taxi driver who was friendly with Mahan exposed himself to the younger boy while sitting in his cab with Mahan.

Abromovitz, who represents Mahan's relatives, said Mahan began abusing the older boy during summer visits the boy made to St. Matthew's, and that Mahan continued the abuse after persuading his nephew to escape parental difficulties at his New Jersey home and live with him in Marblehead, where the boy attended high school.

Despite the church's knowledge of allegations against Mahan, Higgins indicated in his deposition that, except when he was in treatment, Mahan received no oversight between 1993 and 1997.

'' Q. Were there any priests assigned to supervise his activities?

A. No.''

Court documents show that in 1995 and 1996, church officials and Mahan were discussing his future status, and that the negotiations were often contentious.

At one point, Mahan said he would seek to be laicized, or relieved from his priestly vows, including the vow of celibacy. But he later changed his mind.

The issue became an urgent matter for church officials in 1995 when DSS and two law enforcement agencies began investigating Mahan's alleged abuse of his younger nephew.

But the church records also show that police were deferential to church officials. For example, in a July 22, 1997, memo, Sister Rita McCarthy alerted the Rev. William F. Murphy that Detective Keating of the Marblehead police was asking questions about Mahan's alleged abuse of the younger nephew in 1995.

But in a handwritten reply at the bottom of the memo, Murphy said, ''Det. Keating will forward a copy of her report to the DA to me.'' Last night, Keating said she neither promised nor delivered anything to Murphy.

Later that summer, Murphy wrote a memo for the Mahan file in which he reported that Trooper John Fallon of the State Police planned to interview Mahan. Of Fallon, Murphy wrote: ''He was very polite and wanted to defer to any requirements of the Church. ''

By now, Mahan had entered another treatment facility, Baldpate Hospital in Georgetown and, after a short stay, returned to the St. Luke Institute in Maryland for another evaluation.

Church records reviewed by the Globe do not show what the result of the evaluation was. But shortly thereafter, Mahan was permanently suspended from all his priestly duties.

One lawsuit filed by a woman whose identity has been kept secret (courts grant alleged victims of sexual abuse the option of anonymity) says Mahan sexually assaulted her about 1976 when she was in the second grade at the parochial school run by St. Ann Church in Dorchester.

When she complained to a nun who was a teacher at the school, the woman says she was taken to a second nun, and then severely reprimanded and told to ''never say anything like that again.'' Three years later, when she was in the fifth grade in the same school, the woman says, Mahan sexually assaulted her again.

In another lawsuit, William and Paul Oberle assert that Mahan began sexually molesting them in 1969 when their mother was a regular parishioner at St. Ann. William was about 12 at the time; Paul was 8.

In one instance, the lawsuit says, Mahan molested the boys in a bathroom on his boat, which was anchored in Marblehead. ''I felt trapped,'' William Oberle said in a Globe interview, asserting that Mahan's alleged abuse led to years of drug and alcohol abuse.

The Oberles are not the only ones who say they were abused, or nearly abused, on Mahan's boat. Another lawsuit filed by a man whose identity has been kept confidential alleges that in 1969, when he was 12, Mahan approached him but apparently failed to molest him.

The 12-year-old, the suit says, ''jumped off the sailboat into the Atlantic Ocean to get away from Father Mahan and swam between approximately one hundred to two hundred yards to shore.''

Walter V. Robinson of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 2/19/2002.
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