Boston Priest Abuse Cases Were
Sealed by Judges
By Walter V. Robinson, and Sacha Pfeiffer,
Boston Globe Staff, 2/16/2002
Between 1992 and 1996, different judges chose to impound all
the records in
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 evidence of
the Boston Archdiocese's preoccupation with keeping sexual
misconduct by its
priests confidential. In one case, Wilson Rogers Jr., the
attorney for Cardinal Bernard F. Law, argued that public knowledge
about the molestations
''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 in New
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
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
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,
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 decade-long
church effort to hide the extent of sexual abuse of children
by priests. In
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 secret.
And in lawsuits not impounded, the parties signed agreements
that no one
could disclose any of the terms of the settlements.
Meanwhile, a grand jury in Norfolk County earlier this week
to the archdiocese for records on close to 20 priests and
former priests who
are suspected of having molested children at churches within
the county. The
subpoenas formalized a request that Norfolk District Attorney
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 by examining
computerized docket numbers of more than 1,000 settled civil
lawsuits of all
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
information about them.
In the Suffolk cases, which involved Burns, Mahan, and the
Rev. Richard O.
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
All the details about the impoundment hearings were also
under court seal.
The Globe filed motions to unseal the cases in both Suffolk
counties in December. The month before, acting on a different
motion by the
newspaper, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney
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,
The five impoundment orders had the effect of delaying for
several years any
public notice about Burns and Mahan. In Matte's case, Botsford's
successfully kept Matte's molestation secret until a Globe
report last month.
The order in Matte's case shielded from public view a case
of rape, according
to the complaint. Matte, who was assigned to St. Joseph's
Church in Pepperell
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 issued the
final order. In the other four cases, the judges who issued
the orders were
Patrick King, Charles Barrett, John J. O'Brien, and J. Harold
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
Judges have wide discretion to approve or deny impoundment
requests. But when
opposing lawyers in a case are in agreement on whether records
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 much.''
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,'' said Bartholet.
The records that were unsealed yesterday offer extensive
details about the abuse itself, as well as arguments that
the church's lawyers and attorneys
representing the victims made in the secret impoundment hearings.
In the Matte case, for example, attorneys for both sides
- Rogers for the
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
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
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.