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Spotlight Report

  Eileen McNamara  

Priest merely fits the mold


An episode described deep in the Rev. James D. Foley's 160-page personnel file is a metaphor for all that has gone so terribly wrong in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.

Six years ago, Foley was intercepted on a summer night boldly driving the wrong way down one-way streets in Salem. "He was running red lights thinking they were red only for other people," noted an aide to Cardinal Bernard F. Law in a confidential memorandum, easily overlooked among the more sordid revelations about a man who, until last Thursday, remained an active priest despite a history of exploiting women, fathering children, and fleeing rather than summoning help when one of his mistresses was suffering a drug overdose right before his eyes.

Why wouldn't the scandal-prone priest have experienced the "delusions of grandeur and feelings of infallibility," recounted in the memo by the Rev. Brian Flatley? Until he was exposed by the court-ordered release of secret church files, didn't Foley work for the most deluded organization in Boston?

Even in this annus horribilis, the cardinal-archbishop of Boston has continued to operate as though the law applied to others, not to him or to the imperious institution he heads. As late as Friday, even after a judge's warning that she would hold the church in contempt if it did not turn over the files of every rogue priest to attorneys in civil lawsuits alleging sexual assault and official cover-ups, archdiocesan lawyers alerted their legal adversaries that they had "found" more records of more miscreant priests.

Pile those files atop the 2,200 pages released last week about priests accused of everything from plying teenage boys with cocaine to facilitate their sexual assaults to telling teenage girls that sexual contact with Christ's emissaries on earth would make them better nuns by bringing them closer to Jesus.

The documents provide a rare glimpse into a culture in which lying to avoid scandal is as reflexive as genuflecting to show respect. Avoidance of scandal is the first of three priorities listed in notes of a Dec. 23, 1993 meeting between Law and Foley about the priest's troubled past. Finding Foley a spiritual director and a psychotherapist are the other two. "Where in that list is concern for the victim?" asks William Keating, the exasperated Norfolk district attorney who has begun an investigation into the 1973 death in Needham of the mother of Foley's two unacknowledged children.

Foley's file is replete with references to the victim of this ill-fated affair, but in the church records, it is the priest, not the dead woman, who is the injured party. The 18-year-old woman was "obsessed" with Foley and "wouldn't let him go," according to correspondence between Boston and the Diocese of Calgary, where Foley was transferred. When she followed Foley to Canada, the bishop of Calgary wrote to inform the chancellor of the Boston Archdiocese that "his `problem' arrived in Calgary from the East." In a 1993 notation, 20 years after the woman died under suspicious circumstances, a chancery official summarized his view of Foley's actions: "Sounds to me like he was dealing with growing-up issues." That would explain why, when he finally dialed 911 after leaving the scene of her overdose, he did so anonymously?

Foley, himself, sought to derail his removal as pastor of a Sudbury parish in 1994 for a psychological assessment by arguing that his past, while "ugly and tragic," was well-buried history. In a letter to the Rev. John McCormack, then an aide to Law and now the bishop of Manchester, N.H., Foley portrayed himself as the seduced, not the seducer. "But why am I being asked to resign? Is it because at sixty-one years old, I am now being considered an unstable womanizer who is a threat to my parishioners? I have never been a womanizer to begin with, and it is inconceivable that I should ever be seduced again into an unhealthy relationship of any kind."

Father Foley was not psychotic when he drove straight through those red lights in Salem in 1996. In four decades as a Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Boston, no one had ever taught him to recognize a stop sign.

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 12/8/2002.
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