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Priest disputes O'Malley's memory of abuse case

Former head of order says ministry continued

By Stephen Kurkjian, Globe Staff, 7/26/2003

Soon after Fall River Bishop Sean P. O'Malley learned in 1994 that the Rev. Donald J. Bowen, one of his priests on assignment in Bolivia, had repeatedly molested the under-age daughter of a parishioner, he says he told the priest's new supervisor that Bowen must be removed from parish work.

O'Malley, in an interview with the Globe on July 1, the day he was named Boston's archbishop-elect, said the head of the Society of St. James The Apostle, a Boston-based missionary order, assured him that Bowen would be taken out of parish work and kept away from children.

''They gave me their guarantee,'' O'Malley said. ''That was the policy and it had to be followed.''

But the former head of the order says O'Malley never made such a sweeping demand that Bowen be removed from ministry and that no such guarantee was given or carried out.

The Rev. Gabriel Troy, who led the St. James Society from 1994 and 2000, says he only assured the bishop that Bowen would not be allowed access to children.

''What was asked was that Father Bowen not be allowed access to children, and that's what we followed,'' Troy, now pastor of St. Joseph's Church in Boston's West End, said in an interview last week.

But the limitations on Bowen's access to children may also have been considerably less stringent than Troy described -- and O'Malley expected.

Bowen's colleagues in the St. James Society said the priest continued to carry on his full responsibilities as a priest in the mountainous region of Bolivia for eight years after O'Malley said he got the pledge from Troy.

A photograph on the St. James Society website shows Bowen at a Mass in a Bolivian village, surrounded by both young people and adults. And a Society promotional film shot in 2001 opens with Bowen saying a Saturday Mass for local Indian youths in his home church in Caracolla, Bolivia, according to a priest who arranged for the film to be made and attended the Mass.

''It was pretty remarkable because it showed Father Bowen at his best, working with the young as well as old people in that region,'' said the Rev. Raymond Cowell, who currently coordinates the acitivies of the seven Society priests who work in Bolivia. O'Malley was unavailable for comment on the apparent contradiction between his and Troy's accounts of the handling of the Bowen matter. However, through the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, spokesman for the Boston Archdiocese, O'Malley reiterated yesterday that he had been guaranteed Bowen would be removed from ministry.

''If it didn't happen, then that's something he regrets,'' Coyne said.

Cowell said he had no idea, until Bowen was indicted last September on charges of abusing the young girl, that there were restrictions on Bowen from saying Mass or ministering to children.

Bowen, 64, who had worked as a priest in Bolivia since 1973, was unavailable for comment. His lawyer, Peter J. Muse of Boston and Quincy, did not return phone calls.

Four other priests from the St. James Society who worked with Bowen in Bolivia confirmed that he continued in full ministry until he returned to Massachusetts in September 2002 to face indictment on charges of indecent assault and battery on a child under 14.

The Rev. Joseph Bibby, who served with Bowen in Oruro, Bolivia, between 1995 and 2000, recalled that Bowen was responsible for about 25 villages in ''the most remote region'' of Bolivia, about 120 miles south of La Paz. In addition to his pastoral responsibilites, Bibby said, Bowen instructed adults from some villages on Catholic teachings so they could return to their distant outposts and instruct others. He also set up a medical center in Oruro, the largest city in his region, as well as a cooperative for farmers and another one for women to get them sewing machines to make native shawls for sale.

''He did everything that was expected of him and more both in and out of the church,'' Bibby said. Bibby, like Cowell, says he was unaware of the sexual allegations against Bowen until the indictment.

Bowen's good works in Bolivia were of no concern to O'Malley, however, once he learned in 1994 that Bowen had been accused by a woman of fondling and raping her during the late 1960s and early 1970s when she was growing up in Norton. According to the later indictment, Bowen befriended a Norton family while serving at St. Mary's Church as an associate pastor and sexually abused their daughter over a six-year period beginning when the girl was 9.

In 1990, after years of emotional distress from the alleged assaults, the woman, then in her 30s, filed a complaint against Bowen with the Fall River Diocese. Two years later, in January 1992, the diocese settled the case by paying her $200,000. In his response to the allegations, Bowen denied having sexual contact with the girl but acknowledged acting inappropriately with her, kissing her on a few occasions, embracing her other times, and writing her letters which led her to believe that he had fallen in love with her and would leave the ministry to marry her. ''That the letters exist and were written is undeniable,'' Bowen wrote to Bishop Daniel A. Cronin, then head of the Fall River Diocese in 1990 who had asked Bowen to explain his conduct. ''In the same instant it must also be admitted that they were childish, senseless, totally irresponsible and to be deeply regretted for the harm they may have caused.''

Two years after gaining her settlement, the woman decided to approach the diocese again. She wanted to make sure that Bowen did not have continued access to children, and she asked for a meeting with O'Malley who had succeeded Cronin as the diocese's bishop. O'Malley had already earned praise for his sympathetic and straightforward dealing with dozens of victims who had been abused by the Rev. James R. Porter while he was assigned to several churches in the area during the 1960s.

Beyond settling the cases with the Porter victims, O'Malley instituted a policy for handling other cases of clergy abuse that came to his attention.

In his July 1 interview with the Globe, O'Malley said in his 1994 discussion with Troy, then head of the St. James Society, that Bowen had to be handled in accordance with his new policy. Even though Troy remembered the conversation differently, John Kearns, director of communications for the Fall River diocese, corroborated O'Malley's account. He said that when Bowen was indicted last year he spoke with O'Malley about his handling of the priest. ''He told me that he had received the Society's guarantee that Father Bowen would be removed [from ministry] and allowed only to instruct adults on the catechism and work on a history of the Society,'' Kearns said.

Stephen Kurkjian can be reached at [email protected]

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 7/26/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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