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Bishop's Letters Reveal Early Warning On Sex Abuse

Matthew Brady's 1957 missives warned against letting wayward priest into parish work

Apr 23, 2003 | Washington Post When he learned that one of his priests was preying on teenage girls, Bishop Matthew Brady of Manchester, N.H., yanked the man out of ministry. Then he wrote letter after letter at least 15 in all warning other bishops not to let the priest back into parish work.

Considering how many Roman Catholic bishops have quietly transferred sexual abusers to new parishes, Brady's stand was notable. But what's really startling is the year he took it: 1957.

Brady's letters are among 9,000 pages of documents made public by New Hampshire's attorney general at the end of a grand jury investigation last month.

The correspondence makes clear that sexual abuse by priests did not begin with the "sexual revolution" in American life in the 1960s, as some Catholics have maintained. By the 1950s, the New Hampshire files show, U.S. bishops had a lot of experience with the problem.

But the Brady documents reveal much more. They contain evidence, in confidential messages between bishops, that a shortage of priests sometimes led Catholic officials to accept the calculated risk of keeping sex offenders in ministry.

They also disprove the contention that church leaders were unaware until recently that pedophilia is difficult, if not impossible, to cure. The advice Brady received from the nation's first treatment center for troubled priests, Via Coeli in Jemez Springs, N.M., was that priests who had molested minors were unlikely to change.

"We have adopted a definite policy not to recommend to Bishops men of this character," Via Coeli's founder, the Rev. Gerald Fitzgerald, informed Brady in September 1957. "We feel that the protection of our glorious priesthood will demand, in time, the establishment of a uniform code of discipline and of penalties. We are amazed to find how often a man who would be behind bars if he were not a priest is entrusted with the cura animarum (care of souls)."

In later decades, bishops sent hundreds of priests to Jemez Springs and other church-run centers for psychological evaluation and treatment, then recycled many of them into parishes without informing parishioners or police.

Paul McHugh, a psychiatry professor at Johns Hopkins University who serves on the National Review Board established by bishops to examine the sexual abuse scandal, said the Brady letters may help answer "the big questions" about the scandal's causes.

"What we want to know is: Has this kind of abuse always been endemic in the church, and the only thing that changed is our interest in it?" McHugh said. "Or was it an epidemic that occurred in the 1970s and '80s as a result of lapses by bishops who failed to recognize these crimes for what they are?"

McHugh said the New Hampshire files suggest the answer is a bit of both: Sexual abuse has long existed in the priesthood, a problem compounded by a shortage of priests and overconfidence in psychological treatment.

Ultimately, however, the meaning of the New Hampshire files may be unclear until other dioceses open their records and it becomes known whether Brady was representative of his peers.

David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he has seen no evidence that other bishops in the '50s acted as Brady did. "From the victims I've spoken to and the cases I know about, the general attitude back then was that (sexual abuse) was a moral failing, a sin that someone could just renounce," he said.

The Rev. Steve Rossetti, a psychologist who heads St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., which treats priests for sexual and emotional disorders, said he believes that many bishops took similar stands. "In the last year, the press has done a good job of making public some dastardly cases, extreme cases, in which the church has been grossly negligent. But it has not been fair, frankly, in giving the public an accurate understanding of how the church has dealt with hundreds of cases," Rossetti said.

Matthew Brady became bishop of Manchester in 1944. In 1949, records show, the diocese received its first serious complaint about the Rev. John Sullivan. Neighbors reported that the priest, then 32, had a "close association" with a teenager who was hospitalized after an attempted abortion. Although the girl signed an affidavit saying Sullivan had nothing to do with her pregnancy, he admitted responsibility to his superiors and secretly paid her bills.

In 1952, Sullivan, accused of stalking a nursing student, attempted suicide by inhaling car exhaust.

In 1956 he was involved in another murky pregnancy and illegal abortion. In confidential memos, a well-connected priest kept Brady apprised of the police inquiry. Although the abortionist was sent to prison, "no other names" came out in court, and the district attorney "silenced the investigators" to avoid scandal, the memos said.

A few weeks later, Brady suspended Sullivan indefinitely and ordered him to move out of a rectory. It was around this time that the bishop contacted Fitzgerald, founder of the Servants of the Paraclete, a religious order dedicated to caring for troubled priests.

"I have in the diocese, what is an old story to you, a problem priest for whom I am at a loss to find a place to serve," Brady wrote. "His problem is not drink but a series of scandal-causing escapades with young girls." He added that Sullivan appeared to be sincerely remorseful, and that "the solution of his problem seems to be a fresh start in some diocese where he is not known."

Fitzgerald would have none of it. Sullivan could come to the New Mexico monastery but only if he were willing to live there permanently, with no hope of returning to parish work, he said. "From our long experience with characters of this type their repentance and amendment is superficial," Fitzgerald wrote. "A new diocese means only green pastures."

Brady gave Sullivan a choice: Leave the priesthood or move permanently to the New Mexico monastery. The priest decided, instead, to apply on his own to bishops nationwide.

Sullivan's letters drew many inquiries and several immediate job offers. For two years, Brady bluntly warned fellow bishops not to take the risk, but some did.

After retiring from the Phoenix diocese in 1982, Sullivan returned to New Hampshire. He was stripped of his faculties to serve as a priest after he kissed a 13-year-old girl in Laconia, N.H., in 1983, when he was 66. He died in 1999, never having faced a criminal charge.

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