The Catholic clergy abuse scandal erupting across Europe is focusing new attention on the abuse crisis that broke open in Boston in 2002. There are many viewpoints about what may have changed since then, but one recent case raises questions about the legal handling of abuse complaints.
Since the scandal exploded here, an estimated 207 priests from the Boston Archdiocese have been accused of abusing children. More than 95 percent of the cases ended in a civil settlement.
Attorney Mitchell Garabedian has represented hundreds of victims and says the way the church handles abuse cases hasn't really changed.
"They're following canon law, they've circled the wagons, and as far as they're concerned, attorneys are a bunch of ambulance chasers,” Garabedian said. “And so what if the church has a few pedophile priests in their ranks? All corporations do."
Martin has blown through a lot of his settlement money, spending about $60,000 on heroin. "I wasn't always a junkie. I was a good student, a nice kid before these people got to me."
One of Garabedian's recent cases involved three priests, including Father Eugene Sullivan. Last year Sullivan was reinstated to his parish, St. Francis Xavier in Weymouth. Sullivan was on administrative leave for four years because of a charge of abusing a teenage boy in the 1970s. The plaintiff, Mark Martin, settled right before trial for $475,000.
At a diner near his home in Lowell, Martin talked about how the settlement affected his life.
“I don't know if it helped or not. It paid off my lawyer, I have a new car,” Martin said. But he also said he has blown through a lot of the settlement money, spending about $60,000 on heroin.
“I have money. I'll leave it at this. I've arranged so I don't have access to a lot of it. When I did have control of it, I started doing heroin again. I wasn't always a junkie. I was a good student, a nice kid before these people got to me."
Neither Father Sullivan nor his attorney would talk on the record for this story. Many of Sullivan's parishioners, such as Julie Burke, believe that Sullivan was confused with a priest with the same last name and never got his day in court.
"He's a wonderful, wonderful man,” Burke said. “He was wrongly accused. We suffered long enough without him. Everyone in this parish loves him."
The archdiocese says Father Sullivan was reinstated after its review board determined the abuse allegation was unsubstantiated. But it does not provide details. One thing on which attorneys for both sides agree is the need for more transparency.
Attorney James O'Brien says it was "guilty until proven innocent" for Father Sullivan.
Attorney James O'Brien says in the cases of the 13 priests he has represented, it was "guilty until proven innocent" for the priest: "There was no due process of law. Once the archdiocese received a complaint of abuse, the priest was automatically put on administrative leave. They had to move out of their parishes, they could no longer dress like a priest.
"And then the archdiocese negotiated with lawyers for the plaintiffs and the suits were dismissed and out of the news but absolutely nothing was done so the priest could exonerate himself."
The Boston Archdiocese says it has improved transparency and has put several reforms in place, such as the requirement to report abuse to civil authorities. But advocates for abuse survivors are calling for more. Among the things they want is for state attorney general Martha Coakley to make good on her Senate campaign promise to ask the archdiocese to release all personnel records of credibly accused priests. Coakley hasn't made the request yet.
Catholic priest and canon lawyer Thomas Doyle doubts it would change anything:
"The bishops really do believe they are a cut above the rest of us and what they're doing is the right thing, no matter what the rest of the country thinks or what the courts say,” Doyle said.
“They believe they are entitled to protect the institution and themselves. There's an incredible amount of narcissistic arrogance where they don't acknowledge the horror of this plaque of sexual abuse."
But with new questions being asked about the Vatican has handled abuse cases, there may be changes soon.
This program aired on March 25, 2010.