Cheverus High School in Portland is once again facing a controversy involving charges of sexual abuse against former faculty members.
Although the alleged incidents did not occur at Maine’s only Jesuit high school, Cheverus has now been drawn into a priest abuse scandal in Boston.
At issue is the conduct of two priests formerly on the Cheverus staff – one a teacher and soccer coach, and the other a former principal. Both were accused this week of molesting students at Boston College High School, a Jesuit school in Boston, more than 20 years ago.
The two men facing accusations are the Rev. James Talbot, who was fired in 1998 from Cheverus, and the Rev. Stephen Dawber, who left Cheverus in 1984.
The Rev. John Keegan, who is president of Cheverus High School, said Wednesday that the school was unaware of the incidents in Boston when the two were hired. “It was absolutely not known,” Keegan said. “I was superior of the community and I would have heard. But there were no hints at all.”
The developments have raised fears of unreported victims in Portland, as well as new questions about what Jesuit and school officials in Boston knew of the priests’ misconduct.
The allegations occur two years after another former faculty member at Cheverus, Charles Malia, admitted to sexually abusing students. Several men accused him of molesting them in the 1960s and ’70s. The school has maintained that it was unaware of the abuse by Malia, who is not a priest, until victims stepped forward in 1997.
In the Boston cases, Talbot stands accused of molesting at least eight people in Massachusetts before he was transferred to Cheverus, the Boston Globe reported. Police are investigating whether charges should be filed.
Talbot transferred from Boston College High School to Cheverus in 1980, in part to start a soccer program. He remained at Cheverus until 1998, when he was accused of sexually abusing a student in 1984. He was removed from the school and active ministry. A civil case was later settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
He no longer lives in Maine, and has not returned phone calls for comment.
Dawber came from Boston College High School to Cheverus in 1978 and was the school’s principal from 1979 until 1984. He recommended that Talbot follow him to Cheverus.
Dawber was never accused of misconduct at Cheverus, according to the school. He later returned to Boston College High School. On Tuesday, however, officials there temporarily suspended Dawber from his teaching position because the Boston Globe reported to them an allegation of sexual misconduct against Dawber dating from 20 or more years ago.
Dawber could not be reached for comment Wednesday but a Boston College High School spokesman, Michael Reardon, said that it is “standard practice” for the school to suspend any faculty member accused of abuse while an investigation is conducted. He said the school has no record of any allegations ever being made to the school against Dawber or Talbot before now.
The developments draw Cheverus into an evolving national scandal that started in Boston with the trial of a pedophile Roman Catholic priest who victimized children as he was transferred from one parish to another.
The problem has shaken Catholics around the country, forcing the removal of priests and costing the church an estimated $1 billion or more in legal settlements.
In Maine, the Portland diocese has responded by publicly identifying two active Aroostook County priests who have admitted sexually abusing teen-agers in the 1970s. Bishop Joseph Gerry has said the priests are not a threat to children but has asked their parishes to help him decide whether they should remain in their churches.
Gerry is now expected to announce his decision on their futures as soon as Sunday. The diocese also is expected to turn over to the Cumberland County district attorney the names of other inactive priests accused of abuse.
Alumni reacted to the news Wednesday. Thomas Kane, a Cheverus graduate and former Portland city councilor, said he is reserving judgment. “I’ve always had great love for the school,” Kane said. “They did well by me and I had a great education there.”
However, he added: “I’m holding judgment back and hopefully they’ve done the right things all along and weren’t part of a coverup.”
Kane said the most difficult thing to accept would be “if (Jesuit officials) knew down in Massachusetts that either of these guys had a problem and kind of slipped them in without Cheverus knowing who they were.”
Michael Sweatt of Portland, a 1976 Cheverus graduate, is among a group of former students who have raised concerns about the handling of the Malia case. The former students – who are now in their 30s and 40s – have alleged that Malia sexually abused them.
Sweatt is critical of the school because he says it responded too slowly and reluctantly to victims in the Malia case when they finally stepped forward.
Keegan said that since the Malia case came to light the school has held workshops for parents and students about sexual assault.
Terry O’Brion of Portland, a Cheverus parent, said the events seem remote to her family’s life.
O’Brion’s daughter, Katie, was the first girl to graduate from Cheverus last spring after the all-male school became co-educational, and her son, Rory, is a junior there now.
“My children were not at Cheverus” when the two priests were there, O’Brion said. “I don’t have any connection at all.”
Rory, 17, said students have not been talking much about the news report. “It hasn’t affected us too much yet,” he said.
Keegan said he’s heard of no sexual abuse allegations against Cheverus staff except for those reported in the late 1990s regarding Talbot and Malia. He said it is “my hope and prayer” that there were no other victims here.
He also said the school has a clear zero-tolerance policy about sexual abuse.
“Cheverus High School,” Keegan said, “is a safe place for young people.”