In the summer of 1979, when a priest at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Louisville admitted to the school’s associate principal that he had sexually abused a student, Bishop James Malone of the Youngstown Diocese acted swiftly.
The Rev. Robert M. Burns was removed from the Catholic high school that day, said the Rev. Tom Dyer, who as the associate principal had confronted Burns with the allegation.
The diocese reassigned Burns to St. Rose parish in Trumbull County, where he may have molested as many as 50 children. Eventually, Burns, who is no longer a priest, would spend three years in prison for sexually abusing a boy in New Hampshire.
But back in 1979, he was a respected and well-liked teacher at St. Thomas Aquinas, said Dyer, who is now the pastor of St. Joan of Arc parish in Canton.
“He was a hard worker and good teacher,” Dyer said. “He had a homeroom and got along well with students.”
Burns came to the high school in 1977 after two years as a priest at St. Paul parish in North Canton.
“In the summer of 1979 — I think it was in August just before school started — there was an allegation involving a student that was brought to my attention,” recalled Dyer. He declined to disclose details of that allegation but said he was “very surprised” by it.
“I confronted Burns, and he admitted it,” Dyer said.
He said he told Burns the accused priest had only two choices. “Either he had to contact the bishop, or I would,” Dyer said.
Burns chose to call Malone and inform him.
Burns “was gone immediately that same day,” recalled Dyer.
Not long after being removed from the high school, Burns was assigned to St. Rose in Girard as an associate pastor. At that parish, he was accused of molesting dozens of boys and was placed on leave from the diocese in 1981.
One of those boys was the son of Girard resident Carole Ser, who said that in 1981 she confronted Burns about his having sexually abused her 10-year-old boy. She said Burns freely admitted molesting a boy two years before his assignment to St. Rose.
According to diocesan officials, there is no indication in Burns’ file of any allegations before he went to St. Rose.
Still, Dyer insisted that Malone was informed about the allegation at St. Thomas Aquinas.
The Rev. Robert Siffrin, vicar general of the Youngstown Diocese, would not dispute Dyer’s assertion that Malone knew of the 1979 allegation at the high school.
“What we know is, he (Burns) was moved to St. Rose,” Siffrin said yesterday. “But Father Dyer would have a clearer memory of what happened. I would trust people who were on the scene at the time to know what happened.”
Siffrin said he worked closely with Malone from 1987 to 1996, and in those years the late bishop was clear and consistent in handling allegations of abuse by priests in the diocese, which covers Stark, Portage and four other counties. Malone’s response was always to immediately remove the priest from ministry and send him to treatment.
“He (Malone) would not put a priest who was a danger to children in parish ministry,” Siffrin said. “Bishop Malone’s a man who would learn from the experience of others and mistakes he would have made. He had a genuine concern and care for the church and the community.”
Diocesan officials have said that when Burns was sent to the Boston area for treatment in 1981, Malone made it clear to church officials there that the priest should not be allowed to work in a parish or have access to children.
But the late Boston Cardinal Humberto Medeiros, who has since been accused of child molestation, hired Burns in the late 1980s. While a vicar and an altar boy instructor at a Boston parish, Burns was again accused of molesting boys.
At least five lawsuits have been filed against Burns and the Archdiocese of Boston alleging that it gave Burns an opportunity to molest boys despite allegations that he had molested boys in Ohio.
In Ohio, meanwhile, Siffrin said the Youngstown Diocese plans to comply with the request of the Stark County prosecutor to turn over records of allegations of child sex abuse by priests.
“The difficulty with dealing with these issues is, we are using insight that we have now to judge past issues,” Siffrin said. “We can’t help but see those issues more clearly now.”