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Spotlight Report

  Michael Sweeney gestures during a news conference with other alleged abuse victims after their meeting with Cardinal Bernard Law. (Globe Staff Photo / David Kamerman)

In meeting with victims, Law begs forgiveness

Private talk marked by tears and anger

By Erica Noonan and Sacha Pfeiffer, Globe Staff, 10/30/2002

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
DRACUT - Cardinal Bernard F. Law, in an emotional encounter with men and women whose lives were shattered by a priest accused of being a serial child molester, last night begged forgiveness from about 75 alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse and their supporters.

Some of the victims cried as they told Law how their lives had been affected by the Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham, who is alleged to have molested at least 50 boys over a 29-year career as a priest in the Boston archdiocese. Others expressed anger that the church had failed to oust Birmingham even after parents complained about his behavior.

At one point, when organizers of the session sought to honor people who had lost family members to suicide as a result of abuse by Birmingham, six people stood up.

''This is the first time I ever heard him say publicly he was at fault, and ask forgiveness,'' said Thomas Blanchette, an alleged victim of Birmingham who said afterward that he told a dramatic story about confronting Birmingham at the priest's deathbed about his abusive behavior.

Law, wearing a simple black cassock and sitting at a table in a church basement, appeared contrite and repentant. He spoke for about 10 minutes, and then spent another two hours listening to the stories of abuse victims and their families and answering questions.

''Apology is a weak thing, but I don't know how else to begin,'' he said. ''I beg your forgiveness and I understand that can be a very difficult thing to give because the hurt is so deep, the memory so raw, and the wound so searing.''

Law, in response to a question, also said that he would resign if the pope wanted him to. ''It would be easier not to be here,'' he said.

''I feel I have the responsibility to get this right ... I have the pain of someone who made terrible mistakes and caused you pain,'' he said. ''It is a terrible, terrible, painful past, and we have to work together to make sure the future is different.''

The meeting, which took place in the basement of St. Francis Church, included victims, relatives, friends, members of the lay activist group Voice of the Faithful, priests, and some aides to Law. The meeting was requested, organized, and led by a support group called Survivors of Joseph Birmingham.

''Tonight was not about the past, and it was not about blame,'' Gary Bergeron, who helped organize the meeting, said at a press conference after the meeting ended. ''We know who to blame and we know where the blame lies. This was about forcing him to face the damage.''

The meeting was a milestone for the cardinal, who for months has entered and exited his own church, the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, via a side door in order to avoid confronting angry victims of abuse by clergy. Law has been meeting for months with victims individually and in small groups, according to his spokeswoman, Donna Morrissey, but last night marked the first large-scale interaction Law has had with the heartbreak and anger of people who were abused by Catholic priests. Law said he planned other sessions with victims.

''For him to hear about the abuse and the suffering that someone has gone through profoundly impacts the cardinal and anyone who listens,'' said Morrissey.

Several other bishops have held similar meetings, including the new archbishop of Milwaukee, Timothy M. Dolan, who met publicly with victims last week, and Bishop Frank Rodimer of Paterson, N.J., who met with victims in April.

Organizers did not plan for the Dracut session to be open to the press, but a Globe reporter was present. The only alleged victims quoted in this story are those who agreed to be interviewed before or afterwards.

Last night's meeting occurred as Law appears to be emerging from a long period of relative isolation, during which his public appearances were confined to friendly audiences. In the last few weeks Law has attended more public events and has been more accessible to the news media, and yesterday he announced that he wants to meet for the first time with the leadership of Voice of the Faithful.

Law has repeatedly been criticized for failing to meet with victims, but his approach is changing. Last night, on his way to the Dracut meeting, he visited the Lowell home of alleged Birmingham victim Michael Barros to bless Barros's 6-year-old son, who was born with a severe handicap that has left him blind and unable to speak or walk.

''I think he's trying to do the right thing for victims and their families, and see the hurt first-hand and close-up,'' said Barros, who said he was molested by Birmingham in about 1972, when he was 12 and Birmingham was assigned to St. Michael's parish in Lowell.

Other alleged victims were more skeptical about Law's motives, but said they welcomed the opportunity to talk with him.

''It crossed my mind that maybe he's doing this as a public relations move,'' said David Lyko of Dracut, who said he was fondled by Birmingham a dozen times in the early 1970s, when he was 9 or 10, in the sacristy at St. Michael's. ''But it's better than what he's been doing, which is not speaking and ducking everybody. And even if it is a PR move, we don't care, because to have some dialogue is better than no dialogue.''

Some of the victims left last night disappointed. One wanted Law to call publicly for any priest with information about abuse to come forward, but Law said he didn't want to single out priests. Another seemed to want Law to criticize Bishop John B. McCormack of New Hampshire, who was a seminary classmate of Birmingham and who many victims believe protected Birmingham when McCormack was a top official in the Boston church. Law defended McCormack.

But Law admitted several mistakes, saying he was wrong to believe child abusers could be treated and returned to parish work, that he regretted reassigning some priests, and that he had underestimated the scope of the crisis.

''Ten months ago, I didn't understand the extent of this,'' he said.

''That he is finally coming out to see us is a sign of movement, but there's a long way to go,'' said Bernie McDaid, who says he was a Birmingham victim. ''There are a lot of people in a lot of pain.''

Birmingham, who served as a priest in Boston from the time of his ordination in 1960 until his death in 1989, was allegedly one of the worst abusers ever to work as a priest in the Archdiocese of Boston. More than 50 men have alleged that they were abused by Birmingham. Most of the cases are still being litigated, but the archdiocese paid $60,000 to settle one case in 1996. Despite complaints from parents that he was a child molester, Birmingham won assignments to six parishes - Our Lady of Fatima in Sudbury, St. James in Salem, St. Michael in Lowell, St. Columbkille in Brighton, St. Ann in Gloucester, and St. Brigid in Lexington, and a post as juvenile court chaplain for Brighton Municipal Court.

Neither the archdiocese nor the Birmingham victims could explain why Law met first with the Birmingham group, rather than with victims of other priests who had multiple victims, such as John J. Geoghan and Paul R. Shanley. But there are several differences - Law's own actions in the Birmingham case have received less criticism than in the Geoghan or Shanley cases, and the Birmingham victims are unusually cohesive, having formed a support group that some describe as a ''family'' or a ''brotherhood.''

''We wanted to speak to him because we thought it would be important for him to get an unfiltered view of a victim and the impact the abuse had,'' said Olan Horne of Lowell, an alleged victim of Birmingham.

''He has to see the devastation and peripheral fallout that sex abuse has caused.''

This story was reported by Noonan and Pfeiffer and written by Michael Paulson. Walter V. Robinson and Thomas Farragher of the Globe Staff contributed to this article.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 10/30/2002.
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