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Spotlight Report

On defensive, Law pleaded ignorance

By Walter V. Robinson, Globe Staff, 06/05/02

Top church officials, such as Bishop John B. McCormack, have been implicated in systematic abuse coverups.  
Coverage of archdiocese coverups
It was an awkward moment for Cardinal Bernard F. Law in 1993: how to explain why he transferred Rev. Eugene M. O'Sullivan to New Jersey in 1985 for seven years of parish work after O'Sullivan pleaded guilty to raping an Arlington altar boy.

In a handwritten memo, released yesterday as part of hundreds of pages of internal church records to be made public, Law suggested a news conference at which he would make 18 points defending the decision. Among them: That in 1985, "This was my first knowledge of this. No previous reports had been rec'd [received]" of sex abuse by the priest.

In the margin, an aide, whose handwriting appears to be that of Bishop Alfred C. Hughes, penciled in a cautionary note: "Certain? There were previous reports."

Even the woman whose son's abuse prompted the rape charge knew that -- and she so informed Law in an emotional 1985 letter, saying her son would have been spared had the church not simply transferred O'Sullivan when he was caught molesting boys in Waltham 20 years earlier.

She urged Law "to do what has to be done with the urgency this problem deserves. May the dear Lord be your guide."

Several months later, Law did again what had been done with O'Sullivan for years: He transferred him, but this time out of state, to the Metuchen diocese in New Jersey.

In the documents released yesterday, Law is the micromanager in the 1993 damage control effort begun when a Globe reporter found out about the New Jersey assignment, which was made even though the judge who put O'Sullivan on probation stipulated that he not have access to children.

Even as Law wrote in his memo that he had yet to dispatch aides to New Jersey to ascertain the truth, Law proposed that he tell reporters "that there have been no incidents of misconduct alleged ags't [against] Fr. O'Sullivan in the course of his ministry there."

"I should say," Law wrote as proposed Point 10, "that my presumption was that any pastor he would assist would be apprised of the situation." As it turned out, pastors in three of the four New Jersey parishes where O'Sullivan served from 1985 to 1992 were not told about his molestations.

When he was ordered back to Boston in 1992, O'Sullivan received no more assignments. He is now retired, a senior priest.

Bishop Hughes, who is now archbishop of New Orleans, was calling Law's attention to numerous reports of abuse by O'Sullivan that began, according to the records, with a 1964 letter to Cardinal Richard Cushing from the parent of an altar boy at St. Ann by the Sea Church in Marshfield.

The letter, released yesterday and the first known complaint addressed directly to Cushing, accused O'Sullivan of molesting the altar boy and several other boys. The parent, whose identity was redacted from the letter by church officials, wrote that the pastor, "Fr. Finn," had refused to do anything.

A 1984 letter in the file, written by Rev. Robert J. Banks, notes that O'Sullivan was transferred from Marshfield to a new parish "and within a few months there were reports of incidents with a couple of altar boys."

Banks was referring to Our Lady Comforter of the Afflicted Church in Waltham, where O'Sullivan's behavior generated numerous complaints, setting in motion a transfer to Our Lady of the Assumption in East Boston. The files suggest O'Sullivan accumulated even more victims there before being sent to St. Agnes in Arlington.

It was there that he raped the altar boy and allegedly molested a number of other boys.

In an undated letter to Bishop Hughes that appears to be from the early 1990s, an aide, Rev. Thomas J. Daly, referring to the first complaints from Marshfield in 1964, wrote: "As far as I can see, there is no evidence of treatment following the events of 1964, just transferred etc."

In a precede to his 18 talking points in 1993, Law suggested that aides be sent to New Jersey to interview O'Sullivan's pastors there.

"Hopefully," the cardinal wrote, "what would be obtained is the assurance of no complaints. If there were knowledge of his visiting counselor, all the better."

Walter Robinson can be reached at

This story ran on page A17 of the Boston Globe on 6/5/2002.
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