As files documenting alleged sexual abuse of children by priests filled stacks of boxes last month, three paragraphs stood out among thousands of church papers.
The note described a February 1988 meeting between church officials and an attorney from the Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office to discuss the legal fate of the Rev. Paul Tivnan. He was a former Sudbury, Needham and Marlborough priest accused of molesting a boy for several years.
After that meeting, the district attorney’s office decided not to prosecute Tivnan, and the Archdiocese of Boston agreed to give authorities records of the priest’s medical treatment, therapy and supervision.
In a church scandal that has caused people to wish that more sex-abuse allegations had reached legal authorities, this case stood out — specifically because it did enter the system and yet didn’t result in prosecution.
According to advocates for sexual-abuse victims, Tivnan’s case may have been one of the rare 1980s glimpses prosecutors had at a problem that wouldn’t be understood until almost a generation later. Most cases simply never made it that far, they said.
“I don’t think police even let things get up to the level of the DAs,” said Ann Hagan Webb, a regional coordinator of the Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests. “These things got squashed in the way that they squashed tickets.”
Attorney Laurence Hardoon, a former assistant district attorney, was the one who met with church officials that day. He said his office decided not to prosecute Tivnan for two major reasons: The alleged victim didn’t want Tivnan imprisoned, and Tivnan had undergone extensive hospitalization and was still receiving therapy.
“This was a very unusual occurrence,” Hardoon said. “To have a priest who was sexually molesting a person was not something that particularly came through the system. There was certainly no sense whatsoever that there was the kind of abuse going on that we have come to learn was existing.”
Though some may question that decision now, Hardoon said Tivnan’s treatment reflected the way prosecutors handled cases involving accused child molesters back in the 1980s. Then, officials placed more faith in treatment and less emphasis on imprisonment, he said.
“I think back then people thought, `Get these people treatment. They’re otherwise very intelligent, highly educated people. They’ll recognize that the behavior is inappropriate and wrong and criminal, and they’ll modify their behavior,'” Hardoon said.
Tivnan had been a priest for more than two decades before anyone questioned his behavior. He arrived at Marlborough’s Immaculate Conception in 1983, as an associate pastor.
In an announcement published in the Marlborough Enterprise, the parish introduced Tivnan as “a warm and giving person, one who likes to give hugs.” At the time, the priest was allegedly having sex twice a week with a teenage boy.
Tivnan’s time in Marlborough ended abruptly two years later, in 1985, when a 15-year-old boy said Tivnan had been molesting him for several years.
Only later would another allegation surface, that Tivnan had molested a 12-year-old boy while stationed at Our Lady of Grace in Chelsea. According to archdiocese records, Tivnan allegedly told church officials that he “didn’t realize it was so harmful.”
Tivnan didn’t return a phone call seeking comment for this story.
In the MetroWest case, the boy and his family apparently contacted police, and then he eventually testified against Tivnan for the grand jury. That is what led to the Feb. 6, 1988, meeting with Hardoon, Tivnan’s lawyer, the archdiocese’s lawyer and the Rev. John McCormack, who was then one of Cardinal Bernard Law’s top aides.
Crime and punishment
Hardoon, now a private attorney representing alleged victims of clergy abuse, said he doesn’t remember many aspects of the case, but said he was satisfied with the church’s treatment plan and supervision of Tivnan.
“I remembered at the time it seemed to be a reasonable solution, and one that the victim and his family supported, so therefore we accepted it,” Hardoon said.
McCormack, who is now the bishop in Manchester, N.H., said through a spokesman that the church was keeping tabs on Tivnan and was trying to be helpful to the district attorney.
“He had received therapy, he was placed on restricted ministry, he was on medication,” said Patrick McGee, spokesman for the Manchester Diocese. “The bishop does not recall advocating for a disposition one way or the other, but he was simply responding to (Tivnan’s lawyer’s) request for him to be there, and he was cooperating with authorities.”
Hundreds of archdiocese documents detail church officials’ attempts to supervise Tivnan and get him medical and mental-health treatment. They removed Tivnan from active parish duty, and apparently no allegations have surfaced about any sexual-abuse incidents occurring since 1985.
“He was on restricted ministry,” McGee said. “By today’s standards, that may not be done, but at the time it was not something out of the ordinary.”
Hardoon said he feels comfortable about the decision he made, given the information he had at the time. And the fact Tivnan hasn’t gotten into legal trouble since then is important, he said.
“But if the case were to come up today, in light of everything that we now know, I would have been much more skeptical of a therapeutic resolution,” Hardoon said.
Hardoon said Tivnan didn’t get special treatment because he was a priest. He didn’t have a past record and didn’t exhibit any antisocial behavior, Hardoon said.
“The fact that it was a priest made the same kind of difference that probably existed if it had been any other otherwise seemingly upstanding, contributory member of society,” Hardoon said.
David Clohessy, national director for the Survivors Network, said he feels priests have gotten better treatment than other individuals going through the system.
“I wonder if a cab driver were accused of abuse, and his boss came in and said, `Don’t worry, we’re getting him counseling,’ whether that would have worked,” Clohessy said.
Opening the floodgates
In the 1980s, the DA’s office was getting hammered with allegations that blue-collar workers, teachers, stockbrokers and virtually every other walk of life were abusing children.
The state had long had a law requiring people to report abuse, but it wasn’t until state lawmakers passed a new mandatory reporting law in 1983 that the floodgates opened. The law required the Department of Social Services to report suspected child abuse to authorities.
In Middlesex County alone, the number of reports handled by the DA’s office went from several dozen to more than 500 a year, according to various reports. In 1989, Hardoon created the office’s Child Abuse Unit, whose child-sensitive approach was considered to be a model for other prosecutors’ offices.
During that time, a few well-publicized cases captured the public’s attention. In an infamous case, the office prosecuted the operators of the Fells Acres day care center in Malden on child molestation charges. In 1987, teacher Edward Washburn, a teacher at the exclusive Cambridge school Buckingham Browne & Nichols, pleaded guilty to molesting two children.
According to Hardoon, everybody was still struggling to learn more about the sexual abuse of children. But even now, these cases present challenges for prosecutors.
“They’re always hard,” Hardoon said. “I mean, it’s very difficult to go in front of a jury and ask them to convict that adult and send that adult to prison on the basis of the testimony of young children. That was always difficult. It remains difficult.”
And back then, not everybody felt child molesters needed to be put in jail. For example, in the Washburn case, the school paid $70,000 to settle a civil lawsuit for not reporting the abuse. But in a controversial move, a judge gave Washburn community service.
Pillars of society
In the past, judges and juries were easily swayed by arguments the accused was a good family man or a pillar of the community, said state Sen. Cheryl Jacques, D-Needham.
“That defense would have a hard time selling now,” Jacques said. “Most people recognize that sexual predators cannot be cured. They can only be contained.”
Jacques also worked as a prosecutor in the Middlesex DA’s office in the late 1980s and early 1990s. She said she recalls seeing only a few clergy-related cases then, and like Hardoon, said she never imagined the extent of the problem.
Jacques credits the publicity surrounding accused priests for getting the public and lawmakers to take these crimes more seriously. For instance, a bill requiring clergy to report abuse stalled for years on Beacon Hill, without the political will to move it forward.
But there have been improvements in technology and laws in the past decade or so, Jacques said. Since getting elected to the state Senate, she has pushed for laws to establish a criminal DNA database, extend the statute of limitations in rape cases and establish a sex offenders registry. The clergy reporting bill became law.
Jacques said she still wants tougher laws, including registering all felons in the DNA database, and eliminating the statute of limitations for reporting child sexual abuse. For instance, the limit for reporting rape is now 15 years. Jacques said that isn’t long enough for child victims to come forward.
“So many of these cases can’t be prosecuted because of the statute of limitations,” Jacques said. “There are two problems with that. One, there’s no justice for the victim of the crime. And two, it means sexual predators are free to roam because there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Clohessy, the Survivors Network director, said prosecutors need to be more firm in going after sexual-abuse cases.
“It is good when district attorneys respect the wishes of victims,” Clohessy said. “But in the way that they gently prod rape victims, they need to do the same with abuse victims. It’s not enough to say `victim’s wishes.’ They have a responsibility to the community at large.”
But Clohessy said only so much blame can be placed on law enforcement officials, many of whom are well intentioned but had trouble believing that priests could abuse. Besides, he said, they couldn’t see the whole picture yet.
“While police and prosecutors could have done a better job, let’s keep our eyes on the prize,” Clohessy said. “The bishops knew. The vicar generals knew. The chancellors knew. And they worked long and hard to make sure no one else did.”