Boston Priest Abuse Cases Were Sealed
By Walter V. Robinson, and Sacha Pfeiffer,
Boston Globe Staff, 2/16/2002
Between 1992 and 1996, different judges chose to impound all the
five Suffolk County lawsuits involving three priests who molested
because they reasoned that ''the particulars of the controversy''
ought to be
kept from the public.
The records, which were unsealed yesterday, also contain fresh
the Boston Archdiocese's preoccupation with keeping sexual misconduct
priests confidential. In one case, Wilson Rogers Jr., the attorney
for Cardinal Bernard F. Law, argued that public knowledge about
''would be seriously damaging'' to the archdiocese.
In that same case, Laurence E. Hardoon, the attorney for a boy
who had been
anally raped by the Rev. Robert M. Burns, bolstered the secrecy
by the archdiocese by telling the judge that he did not believe
Burns was a
threat to children. But three years later, in 1995, Burns was arrested
Hampshire and later imprisoned after he pleaded guilty to molesting
two additional children. Burns was the defendant in three of the
five civil cases.
In another case, involving former priest Paul J. Mahan, the judge
all the records even though the victim testified that he only wanted
his identity kept from public view.
The impoundment orders in the five settled Suffolk lawsuits - which
erased any public record the suits had been filed - were lifted
by Suffolk Superior
Court Judge Ralph D. Gants after the Globe filed a motion arguing
there was a
''legitimate public interest'' in the issue of clergy sex abuse.
In Middlesex County, an identical Globe motion is pending to unseal
four other settled lawsuits involving priests that were also impounded.
Superior Court Judge Margot Botsford, who signed a May 31, 1995
impounding one of the Suffolk cases, said last night that in hindsight,
she might have ruled differently ''if I had been aware of how widespread
this issue was.''
The impounded cases represent one of three building blocks in a
church effort to hide the extent of sexual abuse of children by
addition to persuading judges to impound some settled lawsuits,
archdiocese steered most victims and their lawyers into private
that resulted in secret settlements involving at least 70 priests.
Those settlements, and the identity of most of the priests, remain
And in lawsuits not impounded, the parties signed agreements that
could disclose any of the terms of the settlements.
Meanwhile, a grand jury in Norfolk County earlier this week issued
to the archdiocese for records on close to 20 priests and former
are suspected of having molested children at churches within the
subpoenas formalized a request that Norfolk District Attorney William
Keating had made to the archdiocese after the church gave his office
the names of priests whose diocesan records indicate they sexually
abused children over the last four decades.
The Globe discovered the impounded Suffolk and Middlesex cases
computerized docket numbers of more than 1,000 settled civil lawsuits
types involving about a dozen attorneys who were known to have had
a role in
cases regarding priests. The existence of the individual impounded
became apparent when the court computer system blocked access to
information about them.
In the Suffolk cases, which involved Burns, Mahan, and the Rev.
Matte, the five judges justified the final impoundment decisions
all of them using boilerplate language declaring that ''the nature
of the parties, the particulars of the controversy, the privacy
interest involved, the interest of the community ... all represent
good cause'' for sealing the records in their entirety.
All the details about the impoundment hearings were also under
The Globe filed motions to unseal the cases in both Suffolk and
counties in December. The month before, acting on a different motion
newspaper, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney lifted
separate confidentiality order that had been applied to all documents
produced in about 90 pending civil lawsuits against pedophile priest
John J. Geoghan.
Judge Botsford, the only one of the judges who could be reached
said that the revelations about priests that have cascaded out in
the last month have altered her view. Indeed, other lawyers said
yesterday that they now doubt that any judge would seal such a case.
''I guess I'm thinking back that if one had been aware, if I had
been aware of how widespread this issue was, I might have had a
very different reaction to it, I think,'' Botsford said. ''But this
is Monday morning quarterbacking. ... I just think that we have
all learned a lot out of this process, frankly.''
The five impoundment orders had the effect of delaying for several
public notice about Burns and Mahan. In Matte's case, Botsford's
successfully kept Matte's molestation secret until a Globe report
The order in Matte's case shielded from public view a case of rape,
to the complaint. Matte, who was assigned to St. Joseph's Church
in the 1970s, canceled a youth group meeting at the rectory. But
he intentionally did not tell the 13-year-old victim, who showed
up alone. After raping the boy, Matte warned him that if he told
anyone, he would go ''straight to hell.''
Matte, who is still listed as an active priest by the archdiocese,
but ''unassigned,'' is living in South Dennis. Burns and Mahan have
both been defrocked.
Mahan, who still faces numerous other civil lawsuits alleging sexual
abuse, was accused in the impounded case of molesting a 10-year-old
boy while he was
serving at St. Ann's in Dorchester during the 1970's.
In Matte's case, two other Superior Court judges, Vieri Volterra
Fremont-Smith, issued temporary impoundment orders before Botsford
final order. In the other four cases, the judges who issued the
Patrick King, Charles Barrett, John J. O'Brien, and J. Harold Flannery.
In all the cases, the judges faced joint impoundment motions -
the church looking for secrecy and the lawyers for the victims looking
to keep the identity of their clients out of public files.
Judges have wide discretion to approve or deny impoundment requests.
opposing lawyers in a case are in agreement on whether records in
should be sealed, a judge is unlikely to take a different stance,
legal experts said.
''Judges generally function as relatively passive arbiters of disputes,''
said Elizabeth Bartholet, a professor at Harvard Law School, ''so
when there's not a dispute you just can't count on a judge doing
Like others, Bartholet also suggested that the church is an outsized
player in any courtroom. ''There's a risk that judges are going
to be more sensitive to the interest of extremely powerful players,''
The records that were unsealed yesterday offer extensive details
about the abuse itself, as well as arguments that the church's lawyers
representing the victims made in the secret impoundment hearings.
In the Matte case, for example, attorneys for both sides - Rogers
church and the victim's attorney, Rikki J. Klieman - signed a motion
supporting an impoundment order, saying they wanted to ''avoid the
possibility of publicity in the news media ... in order to create
optimal opportunity for a successful resolution of this matter.''
In one of the three cases involving Burns, according to hearing
the archdiocese paid his victim $375,000. Hardoon, who represented
of Burns's victims, declined to say how much the other victims received.
According to the transcript of one hearing, Rogers urged the judge
to seal the records, because ''to permit this case to get into the
public domain would seriously undermine the ability'' of two priests
who supervised Burns ''to continue to function as priests.''
Hardoon, who came to prominence as the lead prosecutor in the highly
publicized Fells Acres Day Care sex abuse case, made his own plea
to seal the
files to protect his client's privacy. But then he added some support
for Rogers. Burns, Hardoon said, ''is no longer functioning as a
priest'' and ''he is not a risk, at the present time, as we understand
it, to any other children in the community.''
Three years later, Burns was arrested after luring two boys to
his Salem, N.H., apartment and molesting them.
Hardoon, in an interview yesterday, said ''that was a statement
about his being a risk that I obviously would not make today.''
Then he added: ''That is probably not a statement I should have
made even then.''
This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 2/16/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.