In a stunning turnabout, the Archdiocese of Boston yesterday reversed its decision to return Monsignor Michael Smith Foster to duty, four days after Cardinal Bernard F. Law personally told Foster that church investigators had exonerated him of sexual abuse charges and asked Foster to concelebrate Mass with him today as part of an effort to restore the monsignor’s reputation.
The setback for Foster followed the first meeting between his accuser, Paul R. Edwards, and archdiocesan officials. At that meeting, which took place on Thursday, Edwards pressed his case even though his allegations against Foster and another priest had raised such serious doubts that his own lawyer had abandoned the case and that Edwards himself withdrew his lawsuit on Sept. 3.
On Friday evening, Foster issued a statement expressing his ”joy” that he and Law would say Mass together today. But two hours later, Foster and his canon lawyer were told during a meeting at the Chancery that he would be placed on leave again while church investigators conducted a further investigation of the charges by Edwards. Foster’s three civil lawyers were barred from that meeting.
The archdiocesan spokeswoman, Donna M. Morrissey, said yesterday that Law had restored Foster to his post based on a ”preliminary investigation.” But she added that the archdiocese had been prevented from speaking with Edwards during that investigation, and that once Edwards came forward, the archdiocese was obligated to reconsider his charges.
”On Thursday, September 12, the person who made the allegation contacted the Archdiocese of Boston to make a formal complaint and to offer new information regarding the allegation against Monsignor Foster,” Morrissey said in a statement. ”In accordance with canon law, and our policy for handling allegations of sexual misconduct with minors by members of the clergy, this new evidence must be carefully investigated and therefore, Reverend Monsignor Michael Smith Foster has been placed on administrative leave and the case has been reopened.”
Foster, his friends, two prominent pastors, and the team of lawyers he assembled last month to defend him against the charges reacted to the church’s decision with anger and dismay.
”It is inconceivable to me that the archdiocese could further delay my reinstatement based on nothing more than Paul Edwards’s repetition of the same false allegations,” Foster, who is the archdiocese’s chief canon lawyer, said in a statement. ”This is particularly shocking in light of the cardinal’s phone call to me on Tuesday welcoming me back. The call followed not only the dismissal of the lawsuit, but also the completion of a thorough investigation.”
Foster noted, as the Globe reported on Thursday, that the Delegate’s Office, which investigates sexual abuse complaints, and a civilian review board had both determined ”that these very allegations were found not to be credible.” Morrissey’s statement acknowledged that Law had ”closed the investigation.”
Foster’s spokeswoman, Helene Solomon, said: ”The archdiocese has not presented the monsignor with any new information.” Morrissey said she could not elaborate on new information or evidence that Edwards had given.
William A. Priante Jr., a childhood friend of Edwards who has said Edwards told him in May that it was another priest, not Foster, who had molested him, expressed outrage that the archdiocese would reopen the inquiry ”and listen to Paul after he’s been proven to be a liar. I cannot believe they would do this to Father Michael.”
Rev. Bernard P. McLaughlin, the pastor of St. Gerard Majella Church in Canton, said he and many priests were unhappy with the way Foster’s case was being handled. An increasing number of priests are expressing concern about whether the church is respecting the rights of accused priests in such cases.
”Most people are sympathetic toward him,” McLaughlin said. ”The whole situation has been badly handled. No matter what the merits of the case are, I don’t see any sign of due process, or any indication that he’s being treated fairly.
”He’s in one day and out the next day, back in and back out. That’s traumatic, to get arrested and exonerated and rearrested for the same crime. I just don’t think it’s fair or good, and who knows who these people are who are making these decisions.”
A leader of the Boston Priests Forum, Rev. Paul E. Kilroy, also expressed upset over the latest development.
”The news of Monsignor Foster’s suspension is shocking and devastating,” said Kilroy, who is the pastor of Saint Bernard Church in Newton. ”What is the system in place that allows this to happen to this man? Clearly we need to delineate both in the civil and church law what is going on. One day he is to be reinstated and the next suspended? Somehow it seems the system is treating him very poorly.”
Edwards did not return a call placed yesterday to his Winchendon home.
Foster is one of 23 priests who have been placed on leave since February because allegations of sexual abuse have been made against them.
Yesterday’s reversal on Foster means that none of the 23 cases has been resolved by the church’s investigative office, headed by Rev. Sean M. Connor, who was once a Marshfield police officer.
The decision also leaves undetermined the case of the late Rev. William J. Cummings. Edwards had accused Cummings of raping him in a New York hotel room during a parish youth group trip to New York in 1982. Cummings had not yet been assigned to the Newton parish. And several adults and teenage contemporaries of Edwards have said that they do not believe such an assault took place because the annual trip to New York was a day trip, with no overnight stay.
Yesterday’s strange turn for Foster was the latest incident in several weeks to strain his relationship with his own archdiocese. The charges became public in mid-August. Foster was asked to take leave before Connor’s office made any inquiries about the veracity of the charges. Less than a week later, the Globe reported that childhood friends of Edwards had evidence to refute the charges, and they raised instances in which they said Edwards had made other false claims, including an assertion that he had played a role in the 1975 hit movie ”Jaws.”
After that, Edwards’s lawyer, Eric J. Parker, investigated his client’s claims and then asked to withdraw from the case.
Then on Sept. 3, Edwards dropped his lawsuit ”with prejudice,” meaning he cannot file it again. That prompted Suffolk County prosecutors to start a criminal investigation to see if Edwards had filed false charges.
Ellen Martin, one of Foster’s civil attorneys, expressed concern in an interview yesterday that to deter the criminal inquiry, Edwards has decided to press the charges anew, and that ”the archdiocese has become an unwitting accomplice” for Edwards.
Arnold R. Rosenfeld, the former head of the state board that oversees the conduct of lawyers, said that he doubts that prosecutors would be deterred because Edwards has now approached the archdiocese. For both the prosecutors and the church, he said, ”this is a pure credibility issue here,” Rosenfeld said.
Noting that it is clear that Edwards ”is a troubled guy,” Rosenfeld said: ”You cannot predict what someone like that will do. He may believe that what he is saying is the truth, whether it is or not.” Often when it comes to accusations like these, Rosenfeld added, ”I don’t think anyone can determine the truth for certain.”
Foster had been looking forward to resuming his job and his ministry.
On Friday, minutes before he learned that Edwards had renewed the allegations, Foster issued a statement saying: ”The cardinal has invited me to celebrate Mass with him at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross Sunday, 11 a.m. I can not express the joy I feel at being able once again to publicly celebrate Mass.”
In that statement, he also said: ”I hope to use the tumultuous experience of the past month as well as my knowledge of church law to assist the archdiocese in reforming the manner in which it affords priests due process.”
But the archdiocese’s decision yesterday means that Foster, once again, will be barred from celebrating Mass publicly, or even wearing his clerical garb, until his case is resolved.