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Spotlight Report

Dozens more allege abuse by late priest

By Sacha Pfeiffer, Globe Staff, 4/4/2002

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
In the last week alone, more than two dozen alleged victims of the late Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham have come forward, some with accounts of how they fruitlessly complained about his compulsive molestation of children during the first of six parish assignments Birmingham had in 29 years as a priest.

The number of Birmingham victims is so large - as many as 25 alone from his third assignment in Lowell in the 1970s - that his profile is similar to former priest John J. Geoghan, who was rotated through six parishes of his own, where he allegedly accumulated close to 200 victims even though high church officials knew he was molesting children.

But in the case of Birmingham, who was ordained in 1960 and died in 1989, the public evidence that the church stood by and did nothing to stop him early in his career appears to be even stronger: Separate groups of parents from Birmingham's first two parish assignments said they went to the Archdiocese of Boston with accounts of his serial abuse - to no avail.

Howard McCabe, a Sudbury parent who met with archdiocese officials in the early 1960s after Birmingham allegedly molested his son, said he was stunned to learn that the priest's only penalty was to be sent to a parish in Salem.

''I'm telling you, it was devastating, '' McCabe, who is now 79, said in an interview. ''I was so disgusted. ''

Last month, the Globe reported that Mary McGee and several other mothers from St. James in Salem - unaware that Sudbury parents had preceded them - also took their complaints to the chancery in 1970, just after Birmingham had been shifted to his third parish, in Lowell.

That the Boston Archdiocese would have shuffled around another priest with so many alleged victims is not a surprise to A.W. Richard Sipe, a former priest and a psychotherapist who has long specialized in treating priests who abuse children.

Serial molesters such as Geoghan, Sipe said, ''are not as much of an anomaly as people would like to think.'' Such priests, he said, are ''extreme examples, in a way, because they're the ones who have gotten the notoriety. But there are many priests who have just never been reported.''

After Birmingham was transferred to Lowell, he was brought into police headquarters in neighboring Chelmsford for questioning in a rape case. He was let go, but not before admitting he had molested children in the past, according to retired Chelmsford police chief Raymond P. McKeon.

At the time, Birmingham insisted he was ''cured,'' McKeon recalled. The former chief said Birmingham told him he had never been treated for abusing children and said his pastor at St. Michael's in Lowell had not been told about his history of abuse.

Today, Robert A. Sherman, a Boston lawyer who filed a lawsuit last month against the Boston archdiocese and Bishop John B. McCormack of Manchester, N.H. - who allegedly saw Birmingham taking a young boy to his rectory bedroom in the 1960s and did nothing to stop it - is expected to amend the suit to add a dozen new victims.

In addition to those 12, the Globe has been contacted by eight alleged victims of Birmingham, two additional men who said Birmingham unsuccessfully attempted to molest them, and several others who said they were aware Birmingham had molested children but were not victims themselves.

Olan Horne, who said Birmingham molested him at St. Michael's parish in Lowell, said in an interview that he has made contact with 25 other victims in Lowell alone.

In response to Globe inquiries, McCormack, who was assigned to the same Salem parish as Birmingham in the 1960s, denied that he ever saw Birmingham bringing boys into his rectory bedroom. But he acknowledged that in 1970 or thereabouts he was warned that Birmingham was molesting children at St. James in Salem.

Yet there is evidence that church officials also knew of Birmingham's abusive behavior in the early 1960s, and that Birmingham began preying on young boys soon after he left the seminary. But the archdiocese apparently did nothing to restrict his access to children.

McCabe, the Sudbury father, said he and another parent, accompanied by their pastor, met with church officials at archdiocesan headquarters in Brighton about 1963 to report Birmingham's alleged molestation of their sons at Our Lady of Fatima parish in Sudbury.

Church officials responded by saying that Birmingham would be removed from parish work and receive psychiatric treatment, McCabe said. And soon thereafter, he left Sudbury. Yet within a year of that meeting, McCabe said, his son saw Birmingham skiing in New Hampshire with a group of young boys.

Indeed, Birmingham went on to serve in five more parishes, including churches in Brighton, Gloucester, and Lexington, and the consequences of his repeated transfers appear to have been disastrous: The Globe and several lawyers have been contacted by alleged victims from five of his six assignments. For his Gloucester assignment, he was promoted to pastor.

The only parish where Birmingham, so far, is not alleged to have sexually abused young boys is St. Brigid in Lexington, his final assignment before his death.

The Globe reported last month that after Cardinal Bernard F. Law concelebrated Birmingham's 1989 funeral Mass, Thomas Blanchette, one of the priest's alleged Sudbury victims, approached Law and informed him of the abuse. Blanchette said Law invoked the power of the confessional and admonished him to keep the abuse a secret.

Through a spokeswoman, Law has said he remembers meeting Blanchette, but said he does not recall the conversation.

McCabe's son, Michael McCabe, who is now 51 and lives in Manchester-by-the-Sea, said he lost track of the number of times he was molested by Birmingham at the Sudbury parish in the early 1960s. The abuse started shortly after he began his training as an altar boy, he said, and usually took place in the sacristy, just off the altar.

''He'd come up behind you, rub your shoulders, make you calm, and then slip his hand beneath your underwear,'' McCabe said. Because of his age and naivete, said McCabe, `it didn't seem wrong, and that's what's so weird about it.''

He innocently alerted his parents to the abuse when his father sat him down to explain sex and sexuality, a lecture that included a discussion about homosexuality, McCabe said.

''He told me how some boys touch other boys, and I said, `That's what Father Birmingham does to me,''' McCabe recalled. ''My father went crazy. But, like a typical parent, at first he thought I was lying.''

Here is how Howard McCabe, who now lives in Jupiter, Fla., recalls it: ''I was giving him my lecture on the birds and the bees, and when I got through I said, `If you've got any questions, just ask me.' Finally he said, `Jeez, Dad, Father Birmingham played with my penis.' And I said, `You've got to be kidding.' I couldn't believe what he said, and I didn't know how to handle it.''

Initially, McCabe said, he took the advice of a neighbor who suggested he keep the information secret. But when the father of one of his son's friends told him that his son, too, had been molested by Birmingham, the two men met with a monsignor in Brighton - with Birmingham present. He said he could not recall the name of the monsignor.

In front of them, he said, Birmingham denied the allegations.

''I remember that it was a very intimidating setting, with red carpets and a big mahogany table ... and it was wicked embarrassing for a kid to have to tell this story in public,'' said Michael McCabe. ''I couldn't believe they were making us do that, making us say this in front of him and making us look like liars. When we left I said to my dad, `I told the truth, dad. I really did.'''

The elder McCabe said he was later told by his Sudbury pastor that Birmingham would be made chaplain of Salem Hospital, where he would receive psychiatric treatment. McCabe said he was pleased with the church's handling of the situation - until his son sighted Birmingham skiing with a group of young boys about a year later.

''At that point we lost all trust in the church,'' Michael McCabe said. ''It's very disheartening for the church to say it's going to do something, and then not do it.''

Added Howard McCabe: ''Because of all this, I've become an atheist. I just don't believe in anything.''

According to the archdiocese's annual directories, Birmingham was shifted from the Sudbury parish to the Salem parish, without any hospital assignment.

Nothing much changed after Birmingham was transferred to Lowell, according to two men who said he victimized them when they were boys.

David Lyko of Dracut, who is 42, said he was fondled by Birmingham about a dozen times in the early 1970s, when he was 9 or 10, always in the sacristy just off the altar at St. Michael's.

''I'd serve Mass and he'd keep me afterwards, and I thought it was pretty cool,'' Lyko said. ''He'd come up behind me and cup my genitals.'' Lyko also said that Birmingham would ask him during confession if he masturbated.

Horne, who said he has talked openly for years about having been molested by Birmingham when he was 12 or 13 at St. Michael's in Lowell, said that since allegations against Birmingham became public last month, he has heard similar stories from others who have contacted him.

''It was the same m.o. with everybody,'' Horne said. ''Father Birmingham would invite you to do chores or help at the youth drop-in center, and then he'd get you in his room and shut the door and start making straight-out advances. This guy was a piranha.''

Sacha Pfeiffer's e-mail address is

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 4/4/2002.
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