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Spotlight Report

'I wanted to run'

When he was an altar boy in Salem, Bernie McDaid tried to hide from his priest's sexual advances. But he couldn't escape.

By Bella English, Globe Staff, 5/15/2002

Bernie McDaid
(Globe Staff Photo / Tom Herde)

Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham

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

Che gold Plymouth Fury would turn the corner onto Hathorne Street in Salem, and Bernie McDaid and his buddies would scatter as if playing a game of hide and seek -- which, in a way, they were. They'd jump over bushes, hide in the house, run into backyards -- anything to avoid the car and the man who drove it.

It was the late 1960s. The man behind the wheel was their parish priest, the Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham. The boys were only 10, 11, or 12, but already they knew the routine: "Father B." would get them into his car, take them for ice cream, to the beach, or to a ballgame. But the outings would inevitably evolve into something more. The last one to be dropped off -- "the last one out," the boys called it -- would be the unlucky one.

"At first, the car trips were fun," recalls McDaid. "But then a pattern developed. The last boy out of the car would get fondled and rubbed and assaulted, and Father B. would ask, `Does that feel good? Don't you think you might like boys?' And you'd say, `No, Father. I like girls, Father.' "

McDaid tried to avoid the car. But his parents, devout Irish immigrants, thought priests were royalty; a visit from one was considered a high honor. They couldn't understand their son's reluctance to get into the car, and they would command him to do so.

So Bernie and his friends developed other strategies. "We'd all get out of the car as soon as he'd drop the first one off," says McDaid. "We'd literally jump out of the car."

Birmingham died in 1989 at the age of 55. But the memory of his alleged crimes lingers: Birmingham stands accused of sexually molesting at least 40 boys in the various parishes he served throughout Greater Boston. His superiors at the Archdiocese of Boston are being sued by victims who allege that church officials, including three different cardinals -- Richard Cushing, Humberto S. Medeiros, and Bernard F. Law -- turned a deaf ear to those who complained of Birmingham's behavior. The archdiocese is seeking to block the release of church papers dealing with Birmingham, but lawyers for the plaintiffs believe they will be released in the next couple of weeks.

"I'm expecting the papers to be chock-full of things about this priest who went to Sudbury and abused people there, to Salem and abused people there, to Lowell and abused people there, to Brighton and abused people there, to Gloucester and abused people there, and then to Lexington. Lexington is the only place we don't know of people he abused -- yet," says attorney Bob Sherman, who is representing Birmingham's victims.

McDaid is 46 now, his once-dark hair turning salt-and-pepper. Now living in Lynn, he remembers his parish priest vividly: "the Coke-bottle glasses, the beady eyes." Most of all, he remembers a sexual predator who used various methods to take advantage of boys. And he sardonically calls Birmingham a major influence on his life: By the time the priest left St. James, the teenage McDaid's life was careering out of control.

Bernie McDaid's story is one of a boy's rocky passage into adolescence, his descent into drugs and alcohol, his recovery -- and his recent reemergence as a spokesman for others who say they, too, were abused by Birmingham. It is about the loss of boyhood innocence in the face of abuse, but also about the discovery of an adult voice, about a chance to finally be heard.

The second-born of seven, Bernie McDaid grew up in a lively and loving home. Their father was a pile driver, their mother a homemaker. They were poor, the nine of them sharing a five-room apartment, but it didn't seem to matter. The days were devoted to parochial school, the evenings to neighborhood games of baseball, Sundays to Mass.

Bernie, the oldest son, brought home good grades and excelled in athletics. In the eighth grade at St. James School, he was a straight-A student, president of his class, and an altar boy. He was offered full scholarships to three Catholic high schools. But by summer vacation, after three years as an altar boy under Birmingham, he had lost interest in school and was skipping Mass, fighting with his family, and staying away from home.

His parents were bewildered. What they didn't know, of course, was that the priest in whom they'd placed their faith, and the church they worshiped, had in fact betrayed their trust. And when they finally learned the truth and confronted it head on, they would feel betrayed once again.

The sacristy

McDaid remembers the 6:45 a.m. Sunday Mass at St. James in particular. Only a handful of people would be there, usually to honor the anniversary of a loved one's death. Most Masses call for two altar boys; at the early Mass, Birmingham made sure only one would show up.

After the service, McDaid's job was to store the sacred vessels and vestments in the sacristy, a room right off the sanctuary. "Father B. would come at me and start wrestling," says McDaid, who was an altar boy from age 11 to 13. "As a young boy at the time, I thought that was kind of neat, that a priest could be a friend like that."

But the play fighting would abruptly change to an assault. "I would say, `Please, I don't like this.' Or, `Please stop, that tickles.' I'd pull away, embarrassed. I wanted to run, I wanted to hit him, but I didn't have the courage to hit the man."

Just as they ran from the Plymouth Fury, McDaid and his friends began skipping Mass.

Birmingham became so angry when no altar boy showed up one Sunday that he drove up to a police officer and reported that the man's son, an altar boy, had missed Mass. "That dad got so mad, he went and found his son and made him go to Mass," says McDaid. As for McDaid, he cautioned his younger brother, who had also become an altar boy, never to be alone with Father B.

The cloakroom

In the sacristy, McDaid felt he could sometimes get away. And he could often run from the gold car. But there was no avoiding the cloakroom at St. James School.

"He was running out of ways to get at us," says McDaid. So Birmingham would come into the seventh- and eighth-grade classrooms and ask the nun to please release McDaid -- or whoever -- for a while. Then he'd take the boy into the cloakroom, a long, narrow space sandwiched between the classrooms. There were hooks on the walls for coats, and a table and chairs for "guidance meetings." The doors would be locked and a "Private" sign would be posted.

Birmingham began paying so many visits to the classrooms -- always calling out boys, never girls -- that the other boys would snicker in embarrassment, knowing what the deal was. Today, the cloakroom elicits a visible shudder from McDaid. On a recent trip back to what is now a public school called Witchcraft Heights Elementary, he surveyed the second-floor room -- now an office -- with a grim recognition. "I do not like being in here," he says. "I can just feel those walls closing in on me."

It is here, McDaid says, that Birmingham, dressed in a black ankle-length coat, would begin by questioning his young charge. "He'd say, `Now, Bernard, how many times have you masturbated this week?' " And then the abuse would begin. "There was no screaming or yelling. People were scared. There was a code of silence because we were all embarrassed."

Donna Rediker remembers the boys' fear of Birmingham and his car. She was close to both Bernie and his older sister, Rose, and she would cover for him and the other boys when they ran. "Tell him we're not around," the boys would plead as the startled girls remained at the curb.

"I felt bad because I was lying to a priest, but I lied because I could tell Bernie was freaked out," says Rediker, a nurse who lives in Swampscott. "We girls wondered why the boys were the way they were. They were all starting to act out and get into trouble. Anytime Father B. was around, they were nervous, off the wall. I could really see the change with Bernie. He had some tough times after that. You can't go through something like that and not be scarred."

Young McDaid took out his growing anger on authority figures: his teachers, his parents, police officers. At the end of eighth grade, after three years of alleged abuse, his grades took a nose dive and he refused the parochial high school scholarships. "I told my parents I'd had enough of Catholic school," he says. "I was going to public high school." When he graduated from middle school, he left the Catholic Church and has never been back. "Everything I'd been taught was a lie. I felt that if this man represented God, there was no God," he says.

The next year, his hair was long, he sported a beard and Army fatigues or torn jeans, and he was drinking and drugging heavily. Thus began years of being kicked out of school and home, flopping at friends' houses, racking up dozens of arrests, and spending more nights in jail than he can remember. "From 14 to 24, I didn't draw a sober breath," he says. "If I died by the age of 30, who cared? It seemed like a long way off."

Though McDaid says his downfall resulted partly from adolescent rebellion, partly from "the times" when teens were experimenting with drugs, he is convinced that Birmingham's fingerprints are all over those bottles of vodka, those Class A drugs and police reports, right next to his own.

Time to tell

Bobby Abraham has known Bernie McDaid since they were classmates in elementary school. He, too, is a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the archdiocese. A financial planner who lives in Salem, he became famous among their group of friends for the ditty he made up: "Father B. is a queer, that is what we hear," it began. (When confronted about the song by an irate Birmingham, a 12-year-old Abraham told the priest he must have "dreamed" the assaults.) Abraham was expelled from school soon after; he feels certain Birmingham was the cause.

In the eighth grade, Bernie and some of the other boys finally decided to tell an adult about Birmingham's behavior. The priest was getting to them "at home, church, and school," says McDaid. "What was left?"

They went to Bernie's father, William. "We thought he would be the one who would believe us," says Abraham. Four boys went into the living room. As Bernie haltingly told his dad the details, the others confirmed his account.

"Mr. McDaid didn't say three words," says Abraham. "He was dumbfounded." Bernie remembers going to "a white building" on the North Shore, where his father went in and spoke to church officials while his son waited in the car. "Don't worry, Bernie. It's taken care of," said William McDaid when he returned. Shortly after that, Birmingham disappeared from the parish.

But it was soon learned that he'd merely been transferred to Lowell. Anne McDaid then went with four other mothers to the chancery of the archdiocese. The women demanded that Monsignor John Jennings inform the head pastor in Lowell about Birmingham's past and asked that he be kept away from children. According to the lawsuit, Jennings replied that the women were slandering Birmingham. When the principal of St. James School lodged a similar complaint, the lawsuit alleges, Jennings called her "a meddlesome female."

Jennings, who resides in an assisted living facility in Framingham, could not be reached for comment.

Today, Anne McDaid, who is 75 and lives in Peabody, remains a devout Catholic. An intensely private person, she would not speak to a reporter about her son, but she did make the following statement through her youngest child, Sheila McDaid: "It was shocking to think a priest was like that. I still believe in God and have a strong faith. These priests who have done this and have already passed will be in purgatory."

Sheila McDaid says her mother feels torn: "It's her son it happened to, and it's the church she has devoted her life to." It is partly because of his mother that Bernie McDaid has joined the lawsuit. "I would like a formal apology from the archdiocese to my mother, for not listening to her," he says. His father died five years ago.

A vague recollection

The suit also names the Rev. John McCormack, now bishop of the diocese in Manchester, N.H. In the late 1960s, he served alongside Birmingham in Salem and then ran Catholic Charities of the North Shore. McCormack, the suit says, had been informed of the molestation charges against Birmingham and did nothing. One victim alleges that McCormack witnessed Birmingham bringing him into the rectory bedroom. In fact, says Sherman, when McCormack became head of ministerial personnel for the archdiocese in the mid-1980s, he promoted Birmingham to pastor at St. Ann's in Gloucester, where he allegedly reoffended.

McCormack has denied seeing any boys in Birmingham's room. He has acknowledged meeting with parents about the priest and said he informed Birmingham's new boss in Lowell about the abuse charges.

Cardinal Law is named, too. One of the alleged victims, Thomas Blanchette, who now lives on Martha's Vineyard, attended the 1989 funeral of Birmingham, where Law was presiding. After the service, Blanchette approached Law and told him that Birmingham had abused a number of children, including himself. According to the suit, Law placed his hands on Blanchette's head and said: "I bind you under the power of the confessional never to speak a word of this to another."

A spokeswoman for Law says he has a "vague recollection of such an encounter but no memory of the words exchanged." But, she adds, Law would never have counseled anyone to remain silent about abuse.

As Birmingham was moved from parish to parish, McDaid's life continued to fall apart. Sheila McDaid is head of the domestic violence unit for the Peabody Police Department. Eight years younger than her brother, she nonetheless recalls the havoc his behavior wreaked on the household. "I think he was angry with our parents for not protecting him from Birmingham, even though they didn't know it was happening at the time," she says.

In 1972, William McDaid threw his son out. For the next couple of years, Bernie would crash with whoever would have him. When the McDaids divorced, he moved back home to live with his mother, now in Peabody. One year, he missed 90 of 180 days at Peabody High. He was finally expelled after he "fell asleep in my mashed potatoes, on Seconal."

At age 24, after numerous arrests for disorderly conduct, public drunkenness, fighting, vandalism, and the like, McDaid, broke, decided he had two choices: to live or to die. He went into recovery and has remained sober since. He got his high school equivalency degree, made amends with his family, started his own paint-contracting business, and now has a family of his own.

`I don't fit into the world'

But the scars remain. "I have two major issues: trust and anger," he says. He distrusts any institution, starting with the Catholic Church. Though he has been with the same woman for 27 years, they have never married. His two daughters, now 13 and 7, were home-schooled for a while; the youngest was born at home. They have been baby-sat only by their grandparents or close family friends. McDaid is self-employed and says he could never work in an office or for someone else.

"I can't even wear a watch; it feels too confining," he says. "I don't fit into the world. Any authoritative person over me, any institution, I don't want to deal with. During this all, I definitely lost respect for my parents, the church, the police, God."

Abraham says he saw his friend change: "Bernie was the smartest one in the class and always very upbeat. I can see how he became disheartened about life and felt betrayed."

Today, McDaid's dormant leadership qualities have reemerged: He is a spokesman for a group called Survivors of Father Joseph Birmingham. The men meet regularly on the North Shore, and McDaid says he has drawn strength from the courage of others. "We weren't heard before as children. Let's hope we're heard now," he says.

He is seeking therapy from a trauma specialist. His common-law wife, Karen, a nurse, will not talk about the man she shares her life with. There is still a lot of "repair work" to be done, he says. "I love my family," says McDaid, whose eyes can go from pools of sadness to squinting with laughter. "But I know I have not always been easy to live with."

He regrets that, as he regrets much else. "What I've missed in life is gone and gone for good. I don't know how to get that back."

His lawyer agrees. "Bernie has the qualities that really did make him a leader," says Sherman. "He's not polished, but whatever `it' is, he has it. And the sad part is . . . Lord knows what he could have accomplished in life."

Rose McDaid is 10 months older than Bernie. She sees a direct correlation between the alleged abuse and the change in her brother's behavior. "To be young and have your first sexual experience be a man, a priest, I think that's very sad," says McDaid, a therapist who lives in Beverly. "The church really affected our ability to question, to be skeptical, to stand up for ourselves. All of this is such an abuse of power."

As for Bernie McDaid, he says he has begun to reconnect with God. He thinks, right now at least, that God is taking care of him. "But I don't have a strong faith," he says. "It's something I have to work at all the time."

Bella English can be reached at

This story ran on page E1 of the Boston Globe on 5/15/2002.
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