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Documents Provide Look At Church Handling of Accused Priests

Dec 3, 2002 | CNN Thousands of pages of documents reluctantly released Tuesday to the public by the Boston Roman Catholic Archdiocese reveal what attorneys say is a familiar pattern of top church officials responding sympathetically to priests accused of molesting children.

Last week, a Superior Court judge chastised the church for trying to keep sealed the documents until at least January. The documents already had been provided to the attorney of a man who said he was repeatedly abused by a priest revealed in other diocesan documents to belong to a pedophile organization.

"I think it's an extraordinary insight into the functioning of this archdiocese," said attorney Eric MacLeish, who estimated there could be thousands of victims of priestly child molestation in the Boston archdiocese during the past 25 years.

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 of molesting him.

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

The document release coincided with the beginning of talks for a settlement between the archdiocese and more than 400 other plaintiffs represented by dozens of attorneys.

The plaintiffs allege Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law and other church officials regularly failed to act on accusations of child sexual abuse by the church's priests or acted when pressured while letting the accused priest know the church stood behind him.

The name of the Rev. Robert Burns, for example, first appears in the church documents in notes from a 1982 meeting of church officials. Burns, who was jailed in 1996 for sexual abuse of a minor, was said to have a "problem with little children" in the meeting notes.

But Burns remained a priest in Boston from 1982 until 1991, when Law removed him from his Boston parish. And a 1999 archdiocese memo notes 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."

In all, six complaints were levied against Burns, and as of May 1999, the church had settled out of court with three of them for a total of more than $2 million.

Shortly after his 1996 conviction on charges of sexually abusing a 12-year-old boy in New Hampshire, Burns wrote Law that he considered himself "a prisoner of love in a cell of allegation."

Law responded that Burns' letter had "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.

Greenberg Traurig, the law firm that requested the documents originally, has said it would depose Law about them. The archdiocese also 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.

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