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Spotlight Report

  James Hogan says he was molested by a parish priest while attending St. James parochial school in Salem in the late 1980s. (Globe Staff Photo / Dominic Chavez)

Spotlight Report    

Suit names archdiocese, N.H. bishop

Says church failed to halt abuse by priest

By Sacha Pfeiffer and Thomas Farragher, Globe Staff, 3/24/2002

The late Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham left a trail of abuse during a 30-year career in Boston-area parishes.  
Coverage of the Birmingham case
A former Salem man who alleges he was sexually molested hundreds of times by a parish priest in the 1960s said that Bishop John B. McCormack of Manchester, N.H., who was assigned to the same Salem parish at the time, saw the priest taking him to his rectory bedroom and did nothing to stop it.

McCormack, who was an auxiliary bishop in Boston under Cardinal Bernard F. Law, said through a spokesman the allegation by James Hogan is false. But in response to Globe inquiries, he acknowledged that he was warned more than 30 years ago that the Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham was molesting children at St. James parish in Salem.

Thomas Blanchette, another man who alleges that Birmingham molested him in the 1960s, said he approached Law at Birmingham's funeral in 1989 and told him about the abuse. Blanchette said Law silently prayed for him, but then instructed him to keep the information secret.

''He laid his hands on my head for two or three minutes,'' Blanchette, who said his four brothers were also molested by Birmingham, said of Law. ''And then he said this: `I bind you by the power of the confessional never to speak about this to anyone else.' And that just burned me big-time. ... I didn't ask him to hear my confession. I went there to inform him.''

A spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Boston, Donna M. Morrissey, said yesterday that Law has ''a vague recollection of such an encounter'' but ''no memory of the words exchanged.'' Morrissey added that ''it is inconceivable to him, however, that he would ever have counseled someone never to speak of what they have suffered.''

Law is willing to meet with Blanchette ''to clarify any misunderstanding,'' Morrissey said.

During his three decades as a priest, Birmingham, who died at age 55, served in six parishes and as juvenile court chaplain of Brighton Municipal Court, and allegedly left a trail of victims behind: Five men have told the Globe they were sexually abused by Birmingham beginning in the 1960s and as late as the 1980s - including one who received a $60,000 settlement from the archdiocese in 1996.

Boston lawyer Robert A. Sherman, who represents Hogan, called Birmingham's history of alleged molestation ''one of the worst cases in terms of the amount of abuse'' he has encountered in a decade of representing victims of sexual abuse by priests.

Said Sherman: ''This is a priest who the archdiocese should have put in jail, but instead they moved him to other parishes ... where my fear is there's going to be a trail of victims that will approach the numbers we saw for Father [John] Geoghan and Father [James] Porter.''

Sherman said he will file a lawsuit tomorrow on Hogan's behalf. The suit will name as defendants the Boston Archdiocese and McCormack, who was a seminary classmate of Birmingham.

In 1970, Birmingham was transferred from St. James in Salem, where he and McCormack served together, to St. Michael in Lowell. Birmingham had yet another assignment at St. Columbkille in Brighton before he was promoted to pastor of St. Ann in Gloucester in 1985. His last assignment before his death was at St. Brigid in Lexington.

When Birmingham was promoted to pastor in Gloucester in 1985, McCormack was cabinet secretary for ministerial personnel for the Boston Archdiocese. But he said in the statement that he did not have ''direct'' responsibility for assigning priests, including Birmingham.

From 1992 to 1995 - after Birmingham's death - McCormack handled sex abuse complaints for the archdiocese. McCormack was promoted to auxiliary bishop in 1995. He has been bishop of the Manchester diocese since 1998.

McCormack and Birmingham, who were ordained in 1960, served together in the 1960s at St. James. That is where Paul Cultrera, the victim who received the $60,000 settlement, said Birmingham began molesting him when he was a high school freshman in 1963 or 1964.

Cultrera, a former altar boy who is now 52 and lives in Sacramento, Calif., did not tell church officials or his parents about the abuse until the mid-1990s. ''I didn't want anyone to know this about me,'' he said.

Hogan, 47, who lives in Wilmington, Del., described a pattern of sexual abuse spanning four years in the late 1960s when he was a grammar school student at St. James parochial school. He said Birmingham would call him out of class and into a nearby conference room, where he would fondle him.

Hogan's father, a leather salesman, was a church lector and a member of the parish school board. Once, Hogan said, Birmingham visited their home, sat next to him on the couch, and put his arm around him as he chatted easily with Hogan's parents.

''Then I went upstairs to bed and he would come up and abuse me there,'' Hogan said.

Hogan said he is certain McCormack, who was then assigned to the parish with Birmingham, knew that he was a frequent visitor to Birmingham's bedroom upstairs at the rectory.

''I just don't understand why McCormack didn't say anything to my father and let this go on for the four years that it went on for.''

Hogan said he does not recall speaking directly with McCormack upstairs at the rectory. ''I remember him talking to Joe Birmingham there. He would see Joe Birmingham walk me up to his bedroom. And then I'd be in the bedroom while [Birmingham] went and got ice cream. Believe me, [McCormack] definitely saw me there.''

Patrick McGee, a spokesman for the Manchester diocese, said that McCormack, ''to the best of his recollection, never saw anyone being taken into Father Birmingham's quarters.''

Sherman, of the Boston law firm Greenberg Traurig, said McCormack's alleged failure to intervene to stop Birmingham permitted the priest to have a ''20-year career with access to young boys. If Bishop McCormack had taken action when he was informed of this in the late 1960s there are untold people - children - whose well-being could have been saved.''

Hogan estimated that he was abused hundreds of times, including during ski trips to Mount Snow and Killington and during a trip as an eighth-grader to Arizona, Nevada, and California. ''He had oral sex with me. ... He had me touch him. It was just total, absolute abuse,'' he said.

Hogan's father died in 1981. But years before that, he asked his son whether he had been abused. Embarrassed and in denial, Hogan said he falsely assured his father he had not been touched by the priest.

''I never said anything to any of my friends about it,'' Hogan said. ''I know there were other people in my class that he was bothering.''

Hogan moved to Delaware in 1988 and said the alleged abuse eroded his self-confidence, distracted him from his education, and hampered his ability to form emotional relationships. He married for the first time in 1999 and divorced late last year. He is the father of a 20-month-old son.

He said he feels betrayed by McCormack's silence. ''I really feel that it was a real stab in the back,'' Hogan said.

Before his assignment to Salem, Birmingham's first parish was Our Lady of Fatima in Sudbury in the early 1960s. It was there that the newly ordained priest allegedly abused Thomas Blanchette and his four brothers.

Blanchette said none of the brothers knew at the time that the others were being abused. Blanchette, 54, estimated Birmingham abused him numerous times, attacks that he said included attempted rape.

Now an independent contractor living on Martha's Vineyard, Blanchette said he sought out Birmingham in the late 1980s just before the priest died. He found him at a rectory in Lexington.

''I began with a litany of names of kids I knew in Sudbury that he abused,'' said Blanchette. ''With a sense of genuine righteousness, I told him that what you did to us, and to me specifically, was wrong and you had no right to do that.''

Then when Blanchette asked Birmingham to forgive him for the hatred and resentment he held against the priest for nearly 30 years, he said Birmingham dissolved into tears.

Blanchette said he attended Birmingham's April 1989 funeral Mass, which was celebrated by Law, and met Law afterward during a reception in the church basement.

''I said there's a lot of young men in the diocese who will be in need of counseling in the wake of their relationship with Father Birmingham,'' Blanchette said he told Law. ''He said, `What are you driving at?'''

Blanchette said when he told Law about the scores of boys allegedly abused by Birmingham, Law asked if he could pray for Blanchette. That is when, he said, Law laid hands on his head and invoked the secrecy of the confessional.

In an interview on Friday, Blanchette said he believes Law's first impulse when they met was ''to minimize damage. I think it's all about damage control.''

Questioned about the alleged incident yesterday, Morrissey, the archdiocesan spokeswoman, said the following:

''While Cardinal Law has a vague recollection of such an encounter, he has no memory of the words exchanged. It is inconceivable to him, however, that he would ever have counseled someone never to speak of what they have suffered. This would fly in the face of the cardinal's pastoral response to those dealing with profound personal issues.

''A chance encounter cannot take the place of ongoing pastoral counseling, much less take the place of psychological counseling. Cardinal Law is willing to meet with Mr. Blanchette to pursue this matter personally and to clarify any misunderstanding which may exist.''

Joseph A. Favalora of New York City, David P. Venne of Portland, Maine, and James Davin of Merrimack, N.H., also told the Globe they were abused by Birmingham - Favalora in Gloucester, Venne and Davin in Sudbury.

Favalora, 31, said he was molested by Birmingham at the St. Ann rectory in 1986. Favalora said the abuse happened only once.

Venne, 52, said he was molested at age 12 by Birmingham 40 years ago. Venne said he and other children went to Nantasket Beach with Birmingham in June 1962. Venne said he grew ill after eating cotton candy and taking too many rides at Paragon Park.

''Father Birmingham took me to his car and he said to lay down in the back seat,'' Venne said. ''I was half passed out. When I woke up, he was rubbing my stomach and then he undid my pants and he fondled me.'' Venne said he never told his parents or confronted Birmingham about his conduct.

Davin, 51, said he was molested over several years by Birmingham in the early 1960s, beginning when he was 11. A former altar boy, he said he considered but never pursued a lawsuit over the molestation.

Hogan said he is filing his lawsuit because as a new father he wants to do everything he can to stop sexual abuse.

''This is giving the church a black eye,'' he said. ''I decided to come forward and protect my son and let them know that they can't do this.''

Three decades ago, Salem parents pleaded with McCormack and others to protect their children.

In the statement he issued on Thursday, McCormack said he ''does recall parents complaining about Fr. Birmingham'' while McCormack was serving as regional director of Catholic Charities in Salem about 1970. He said he referred the parents to ''the pastor of the parish who was responsible for Fr. Birmingham's ministry.''

Mary McGee, one of the parents who said she complained to McCormack after learning that her son had been groped and several of his friends had been molested by Birmingham, expressed frustration that nothing was done.

In an interview, McGee said she and other Salem mothers went to archdiocesan headquarters in Brighton to complain, to no avail. It was then, she said, that she sought out McCormack.

''What burns me is Fr. McCormack knew about this and what they do is move McCormack up the ladder, and Father Birmingham gets made pastor in Gloucester,'' said McGee, who is no relation to McCormack's spokesman. ''Now that is sick. That's sick.''

''What I know now is that I should have gone to the police,'' said McGee. ''But I thought I'd go to the church and I thought the church would take care of it.''

Sacha Pfeiffer's e-mail address is Thomas Farragher's e-mail address is

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 3/24/2002.
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