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Church Kept Priest's Note of Apology From Victim

Feb 12, 2003 | The Boston Globe

All she really wanted was an apology.

Only 14 when she was fondled by a priest she knew as a family friend, the woman suffered through three decades of pain before she brought her case to the church.

She asked for some help paying for her therapy, and she asked for an expression of remorse from the Rev. James T. McDonald, the man who molested her.

And McDonald, the former rector of Holy Cross Cathedral in the South End, did confess to her and beg her forgiveness in a letter written in June 1997, two years before his death.

But the church never mailed it. Instead, church officials decided to meet with her in person, offering her an expression of sorrow but not revealing that the priest had written her.

In his letter, McDonald was forthright about his guilt.

''I remember you as a wonderful girl from a very kind family,'' he wrote. ''I am sorry for violating [your parents'] trust in me by my improper advances to you. I wish it had never happened, but I must admit it did and I acknowledge my guilt.''

The woman learned of McDonald's letter only yesterday, when it was included in the public release of his personnel file by the Boston law firm of Greenberg Traurig, which represents about 260 alleged victims of clergy abuse. The firm sought the records as part of its effort to prove that the church had a pattern of protecting abusive priests from accountability.

The woman, in an interview, said she was astonished to learn that McDonald had written a letter of apology to her and cried after she was read its contents.

''For so much of my life, I have been waiting to hear someone say to me that what happened to me was not because of something that I had done or said,'' she said. ''I just can't understand why they wouldn't have given me that letter.''

McDonald, who died in 1999 at age 72, had abused the woman while he was assigned to St. Ann's Church in Peabody in 1965 and 1966, and perhaps later when he was transferred to a Waltham church. A close friend of her parents and a frequent visitor at the family's home in a community north of Boston, McDonald ''caressed, fondled and involved her in sex play'' for several months until she complained to her parents.

File records show that the 14-year old was not the only woman whom McDonald abused during his 45 years as a priest. In 1994, according to a memo written by the Rev. John B. McCormack, then Cardinal Bernard F. Law's principal aide handling sexual abuse cases, McDonald acknowledged ''fondling other young girls.'' The last fondling, he said, was in the late 1970s.

In 1994, the chaplain at Lawrence General Hospital wrote to the Boston Archdiocese, saying a woman hospitalized there for psychiatric and drug addiction problems also complained of being abused by McDonald when she was 10 years old. ''She has a problem with authority and blames her broken life on the episodes with Fr. McDonald,'' the Rev. Paul R. Franz wrote to the archdiocese.

Because of the complaints, the archdiocese removed McDonald from active ministry in 1994.

The Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, spokesman for the archdiocese, declined to comment on any of the information contained in McDonald's files.

Roderick MacLeish Jr., Greenberg Traurig's chief counsel on the clergy abuse cases, said after reviewing the file that the church's handling of McDonald's case ''shows again a lack of common decency in dealing with a victim.''

MacLeish and other lawyers said they surmised the reason the archdiocese did not turn over McDonald's letter of apology to the victim was to avoid providing her conclusive evidence of being abused if she did file a lawsuit.

''It sounds like legitimate advice that a lawyer would give his client: Don't do anything that would admit your liability,'' said Arnold R. Rosenfeld, former chief counsel of the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers. ''It would be up to the archdiocese to proceed on moral or legal grounds.''

The decision not to mail McDonald's letter of apology was made by the Rev. William F. Murphy, the aide to Law handling sexual abuse cases at that time. Murphy, in 1997, told McDonald it would not be necessary to send the letter because he planned to meet personally with the victim and ''convey the sorrow you expressed so well'' to her.

Recalling the meeting with Murphy, the victim said, ''He told me as best as he could that the archdiocese was sorry for what had happened to me,'' she said. ''But I was still angry because of all the problems I had gone through because of this.''

In 1999, her anger rose again when she read that McDonald had died and that Law would preside at his funeral. Concerned she might cause a scene at the Mass, church officials arranged for her to meet with Law. But she said his remarks left her feeling disgusted.

''He said the same apologies, but when he tried to tell me that McDonald had done much good in his life. I couldn't listen anymore. It was just the same old excuses.''


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