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Documents cash harsh light on archdiocese treatment of accused priests

Mediation begins between church, plaintiffs

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• 2,200 pages of documents released Tuesday
• 40 attorneys
• 450 plaintiffs
• 8 accused priests
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CNN's Bill Delaney reports on just-released documents detailing thousands more accusations of sex abuse by priests and the silence of the Roman Catholic church. (December 3)
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BOSTON, Massachusetts (CNN) -- Church officials gingerly handled priests accused of child molestation, often doing little more than transferring them to another parish, according to documents released Tuesday by the law firm that obtained them from the Boston Roman Catholic Archdiocese.

Attorneys released more than 2,000 pages out of nearly 12,000 that a judge ordered given to them last month, but whose delivery was stalled while the church tried to keep them sealed until at least January.

The sheer mass of the documents jolted even those who sought their release.

"I think it's an extraordinary insight into the functioning of this archdiocese," said Eric MacLeish, an attorney representing some of more than 400 plaintiffs who have filed suit against the archdiocese over alleged sexual misconduct by its priests.

MacLeish estimated there could have been thousands of victims of priestly child molestation in the Boston archdiocese over the past 25 years.

Boston's archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law, has not commented on the release, but his name figures prominently in many of the documents, including those addressing the Rev. Robert Burns, who was jailed in New Hampshire in 1996 for molesting a 12-year-old boy.

Burns came to the Boston archdiocese from Youngstown, Ohio, in 1982, when his "problem with little children" was noted in church documents about his transfer.

In an affidavit signed in 1999, the retired bishop of the Youngstown diocese, James W. Malone, said he learned Burns allegedly touched "a young boy through his clothing" in 1979 and two more boys in 1981. Burns underwent counseling, Malone said, after which "I gave Father Burns permission to serve as a priest outside the Diocese of Youngstown."

Ultimately, six complaints were levied against Burns in Boston. As of May 1999, the church had reached out-of-court settlements on three of them -- two in the early 1990s -- for a total of more than $2 million.

A 1999 archdiocese memo noted that "Burns' propensity was known to officials within the Archdiocese of Boston, but overlooked in favor of Father Burns' solemn assurance of his ability to control his impulses."

Church officials were also aware of several accusations -- some regarding incidents that took place in the 1960s -- that the Rev. Robert Meffan told teenage girls and convent novitiates that the scriptural imagery of the bride of Christ was meant to be literal.

According to the complaints, which surfaced in 1993, Meffan persuaded the girls to join him privately for sessions of intimate touching, including "everything short of intercourse," according to the documents.

But in another complaint that originally surfaced in 1986, a woman described as now being "in religious life" contended that her relationship with Meffan was based on the same argument about the bride of Christ imagery, went far beyond mere touching and continued into her late 20s.

At Law's request, Meffan wrote in 1996 about his "current situation," saying that he saw himself as a "prisoner of love in a cell of allegation."

Law, calling Meffan "Bob," responded that the letter "touched me deeply."

"It is important that all of us be reminded of the pain endured by those who have been accused," the cardinal wrote.

Some prominent Massachusetts Catholics have begun to wonder aloud when the 70-year-old cardinal, who became Boston's archbishop in 1984, will resign.

"You know, I and my family have been around politics for a long time," said Thomas O'Neill, son of former speaker of the House Tip O'Neill. "And I think we've seen arrogance at every level, in every size. But frankly, this takes the cake."

The church last month handed over more than 11,000 pages of documents -- notes, memorandums and other papers on 65 priests accused of child molestation -- to the law firm of Greenberg Traurig, attorneys for a man who has accused the Rev. Paul Shanley, once a Boston priest, of molesting him.

Shanley, now retired, was indicted in June on 16 counts of sexual misconduct with children. He has pleaded innocent.

The document's release coincided with the beginning of talks for a settlement between the archdiocese and some 450 other plaintiffs represented by dozens of attorneys.

Last week, a Suffolk County Superior Court judge chastised the church for trying to keep the documents sealed until at least January and ordered them released to the public.

Greenberg Traurig, which originally requested the documents, has said it would depose Law about them. The archdiocese told the firm that it would release more documents on December 13, the attorneys said.

The firm said it has records regarding 83 priests accused of child molestation.

-- CNN Correspondent Bill Delaney contributed to this report.

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