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Spotlight Report

Judge voices concerns on suit vs. priests

By Walter V. Robinson and Matt Carroll, Globe Staff, 8/30/2002

Suffolk Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney (Globe Staff Photo / John Blanding)

Accused of abuse and absolved, Msgr. Michael Smith Foster returned to parish work sobered by his experience.  
Coverage of the Foster case

Suffolk Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney yesterday declared that she has ''significant concerns'' about the credibility of sexual abuse allegations against two priests after a lawyer for the accuser, citing his own concerns, asked to withdraw from the case.

In a written order, Sweeney also summoned the alleged victim, Paul R. Edwards, and his lawyer, Eric J. Parker, to appear in court Wednesday, a move one legal expert said suggests that Sweeney wants to determine whether a fraudulent claim was filed.

Parker asked to be relieved as Edwards's lawyer in a motion filed Wednesday, a week after a Globe report raised doubts about Edwards's allegations that he was abused two decades ago by Monsignor Michael Smith Foster, now the archdiocese's chief canon lawyer, and by the late Rev. William J. Cummings.

After the Globe report last week, Parker said he would seek to verify evidence that appeared to contradict his client's accusations. Parker said in an interview yesterday that he had conducted a ''thorough investigation,'' though he declined to say what he had discovered.

But in his motion, he concluded that ''issues arose, central to the allegations contained in the plaintiff's Complaint, that prevent plaintiff's counsel from serving effectively as plaintiff's legal counsel in connection with this matter.''

Because of the language in Parker's motion, Sweeney said in a motion that ''I have significant concerns regarding the good faith basis for the allegations'' in the lawsuit.

Edwards, 35, filed a separate affidavit agreeing to Parker's withdrawal, saying he has not retained a new lawyer and hinting that he has not decided whether to press forward with his lawsuit, which was filed Aug. 14.

In his filing, Edwards said he has been advised that ''the withdrawal of my attorneys may pose a significant challenge to me should I decide to proceed with the prosecution of this matter.''

Attempts to reach Edwards were unsuccessful yesterday.

Foster, who at age 47 has risen rapidly in the church hierarchy, declined comment yesterday. In a statement, his lawyer, Joseph L. Doherty Jr., said, ''As Monisgnor Foster stated at the outset, the allegations against him are false.''

Doherty said he and Foster are ''encouraged'' by Sweeney's statement, adding, ''We are hopeful that next week's hearing will result in the ultimate dismissal of these false allegations against a truly gifted and exceptional priest.''

The Archdiocese of Boston, which had placed Foster on leave after the lawsuit was filed, declined comment on Sweeney's order or Parker's request to leave the case.

Edwards, who was raised in Newton and now lives in Winchendon, claimed in his lawsuit that during an overnight youth group trip to New York City in December 1982, organized by Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Newton, he was assigned to sleep in the same hotel room with Cummings. During the night, he said, he was anally raped. Cummings died in 1994.

He also accused Foster of molesting him numerous times between 1980 and 1985 in his rectory bedroom at Sacred Heart Church in Newton.

After more than a score of interviews, however, the Globe reported that the annual December bus trips to New York City were day trips, with no overnight stays; that lay chaperones always went on the trips; and that Cummings had yet to be assigned to Our Lady parish in December 1982.

Moreover, according to the pastor and three teenagers who worked at Sacred Heart rectory in the early 1980s, visitors were forbidden above the first floor and it would have been impossible for Edwards to spend any significant time in Foster's room without being noticed.

Further questions about the truth of the allegations were raised by William A. Priante Jr., a childhood friend of Edwards. Priante told the Globe that Edwards called him on May 2 and told him that it was Cummings - not Foster - who molested him numerous times in a rectory bedroom. Priante said Edwards said nothing to him about Foster molesting him.

In the lawsuit, Edwards accused Cummings only of the single incident of rape.

The Globe report also raised other questions about Edwards's credibility. According to school classmates, he had a habit of making up stories about himself. For instance, he told friends in school in 1974 that he had a role in the 1975 hit movie, ''Jaws.'' More recently, two men who grew up with Edwards said he had told them that two professional hockey players had helped him win a berth on a Canadian semipro hockey team. Both former hockey players denied doing that, and one said he had never heard of Edwards.

Arnold R. Rosenfeld, former head of the state board that oversees the conduct of lawyers, noted last week that when lawyers learn of evidence that refutes claims made in lawsuits, they have a legal obligation to conduct an investigation.

Yesterday, Rosenfeld said he believes that Parker, ''is trying to do the right thing.'' Parker's motion, Rosenfeld said, suggests that the lawyer is trying to extricate himself from the case because he has information, or believes there is information, that refutes his client's claim.

''Obviously, the motion raises questions about the credibility of the allegations,'' he said.

Under legal rules, Parker cannot do anything to harm his client's potential case in a motion to withdraw. However, the former bar counsel suggested Parker may have a dilemma if Sweeney orders Parker and Edwards to testify.

''The judge, I suspect, is reading between the lines in that motion,'' Rosenfeld said. ''She is trying to determine whether a fraud has been perpetrated on the court.'' Parker, he said, has a dual obligation: to protect attorney-client privilege and ensure his client has not filed false accusations. But the latter obligation is paramount, he said.

Even in advance of the hearing, other priests said they were heartened by Parker's move.

The Rev. Robert W. Bullock, the chairman of the Boston Priests' Forum, which represents 250 of the 900 priests in the archdiocese, said in an interview that he believes the new developments are a major step toward Foster's vindication.

Bullock, who has accused the archdiocese of trampling on the rights of accused priests, said the archdiocese's handling of the Foster case will be a test of its stated intention to restore a priest's reputation if allegations are shown to be groundless.

The church ''definitely should apologize'' to Foster, said Bullock, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Sharon. ''There should be no shadow over him, no suspicion.''

In Foster's case, he said, ''The suspicion is that there has not been an investigation and the charges were taken seriously when there were no serious charges.''

Walter Robinson's can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 8/30/2002.
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