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Lawsuit Says Church Hid Sex Crimes

April 5, 2002

BOSTON (AP) _ His nickname was ``Father B,″ he drove a flashy black convertible, and he seemed to know how to relate to children, including the boys in the Roman Catholic parishes where he was assigned.

The late Rev. Joseph Birmingham is also accused of sexual abuse by a growing list of those boys, including 13 who on Thursday joined in a lawsuit against the Boston archdiocese and church officials, including Cardinal Bernard Law.

The suit charges the church with covering up Birmingham’s sex crimes, shuffling him between six parishes and ignoring parents who told church officials about the abuse.

Birmingham, who died in 1989, started in Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Sudbury, Mass., in 1961 before moving to Salem, Lowell and then Boston. He was promoted to pastor of St. Ann’s Parish in Gloucester in 1986, then worked at St. Brigid’s Parish in Lexington just before his death.

The suit said Law tried to silence one victim who told him about Birmingham by laying hands on him and invoking the power of confession never to speak of the matter.

The archdiocese issued a statement saying it ``is committed to investigating all allegations of abuse in accordance with our policy and providing outreach and counseling support to victims of abuse.″

At a news conference Thursday, some of Birmingham’s alleged victims said he was an engaging priest who joked with them, treating them to ice cream and taking them for rides in his convertible.

Eventually, they said, Birmingham would molest them after getting them alone in various ways _ such as taking them to the rectory, scheduling just one altar boy for mass, or dropping them off last in the car.

``Each one of us would be thinking, ’Which one of us is he going to grab?‴ said John Morris of Shelton, Conn., a former altar boy in Salem.

Bernard McDade of Lynn said Birmingham abused him when McDade was an altar boy at St. James Parish in Salem.

``This man was allowed to breed his pedophilia in the system from parish to parish and this has to stop,″ McDade said.

The charges of a cover-up are similar to those the church faces in the case of defrocked priest John Geoghan, and attorney Robert Sherman said the numbers of abuse allegations could come close to the 130 boys who said Geoghan molested them.

Michael Hogan, 47, made the first accusations against Birmingham last week. He sued the archdiocese, saying Birmingham molested him hundreds of times during the 1960s.

The amended suit filed Friday also claims Monsignor John Jennings, who dealt with personnel issues at the archdiocese, rebuffed a group of parents who traveled to Boston in 1970 to tell him that Birmingham was abusing their children.

Mary McGee, who led the group, said Jennings told them to be careful not to slander Birmingham. He also refused to warn the pastor at Birmingham’s next assignment in Lowell.

A call to Jennings, who lives at an assisted living home, was not immediately returned.

Thomas Blanchette, who said he was abused by Birmingham when the priest was in Sudbury, said he spoke to Cardinal Law about Birmingham at Birmingham’s funeral in 1989. He said Law expressed sympathy, but tried to silence him by invoking the power of confession.

Since January, dozens of priests out of more than 47,000 nationwide have been suspended or forced to resign.

Meanwhile, in e-mail messages reported by a radio station and a newspaper web site, Cardinal Roger Mahony told one of his lawyers that the Los Angeles Archdiocese made a ``huge mistake″ by failing to turn over three sexual abuse cases involving priests to police.

In an e-mail dated March 27, Mahony told his attorney, Sister Judith Ann Murphy, that the diocese should have talked with police detectives about three of the sexual abuse cases.

``If we don’t, today, ‘consult’ with the detective about those 3 names, I can guarantee you that I will get hauled into a grand jury proceeding and I will be forced to give all the names, etc.″

The content of the e-mails were first broadcast Thursday on KFI Radio and later published on the Los Angeles Times’ Web site. It was not clear how the messages were obtained.

The church’s lawyers sought to prevent the release of the e-mails to the Times, but a Superior Court judge denied their petition late Thursday.

In Ohio, the Diocese of Cleveland said a priest newly accused of molesting a girl in 1980 was found dead Thursday of an apparent suicide.

The Rev. Don A. Rooney, 48, was found in his car in a pharmacy parking lot with an apparent head wound.

Elsewhere:

_ A lawyer for the Archdiocese of Atlanta said the archdiocese has responded to six claims in the past 13 years accusing priests of sexually abusing boys. Court records show payments to settle the cases have exceeded $500,000.

_ The Archdiocese of New York said it will appoint a committee to investigate sexual abuse allegations against priests. Under the new policy, claims that are deemed to be well-grounded will be reported to authorities even if the victim does not consent.