Bishop John McCormack files: Memos reveal trail of charges
By Sacha Pfeiffer Boston (MA) Globe June 5, 2002
The departure was sudden, but if parishioners asked what had become of their parish priest, church officials had a tidy explanation ready: The Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham had been “working too hard” and “needed a rest,” according to a three-page, handwritten Nov. 4, 1964, memo by a high-ranking Chancery official.
In fact, Birmingham had been hastily transferred from Our Lady of Fatima Church in Sudbury to St. James Church in Salem after two fathers and their sons reported the young priest had repeatedly fondled the boys.
It’s likely, however, that many Sudbury parishioners knew the truth anyway. The pastor there told Chancery officials that knowledge of Birmingham’s habit of groping altar boys was so “widespread” that some children refused to attend altar-boy meetings and religious education classes.
Forced to face two of his young accusers at a meeting at the Chancery, Birmingham first denied the accusations, then claimed to have no memory of the incidents, and finally apologized for the “impropriety.”
He was ordered to see a Catholic psychiatrist “to get to the root of this problem,” although it is unclear whether he followed through with the directive. He was placed on sick leave and later reassigned to Salem, where his abusive behavior continued, according to a fellow priest who advised church officials in 1970 that Birmingham be transferred again.
The disclosures about the archdiocese’s extensive knowledge of Birmingham’s alleged history of abuse were included among 1,000 pages of church documents released yesterday in connection with a lawsuit filed against the Rev. Paul R. Shanley.
Despite Birmingham’s troubled history, he was moved from Salem to another parish in Lowell, to one in Brighton, to Gloucester, and to Lexington. By the time he died in 1989, he had served in a half-dozen parishes in the archdiocese, leaving dozens of accusations.
Church files show that his alleged abuses were known to Cardinal Bernard F. Law and several of his top deputies, including now-Bishop John B. McCormack of Manchester, N.H., who was one of Birmingham’s seminary classmates, and now-Bishop Robert J. Banks of Green Bay, Wis.
In McCormack’s case, he wrote on Law’s behalf to assure a parishioner at St. Ann’s in Gloucester in April 1987 that there was “no factual basis” to his concern that his son may have been molested by Birmingham – even though McCormack had known since at least 1970 of Birmingham’s alleged abuses. “From my knowledge of Father Birmingham and my relationship with him, I feel he would tell me the truth and I believe he is speaking the truth in this matter,” McCormack wrote to the parishioner, who had written Law to inquire whether the Birmingham who was removed from Gloucester several months earlier was the same Birmingham who had been removed from Sudbury in the 1960s for molesting boys.
“I see no need of your raising this question with your son,” McCormack added.
Two months earlier, Banks wrote that Birmingham had “admitted there had been some difficulty” when confronted with a recent abuse complaint.”He agreed it would be helpful to resign from the parish, and to seek assessment and therapy,” Banks added.
Birmingham’s file indicates he was sent the same year to the Institute of Living, a Hartford treatment center for sexually abusive priests. After that, he served as parochial vicar at St. Brigid in Lexington from 1987 until shortly before his death in 1989.
After Birmingham’s death, complaints continued to stream in to the archdiocese, including one by a man who received a $60,000 settlement from the archdiocese for abuse he suffered at Birmingham’s hands when he was a high school student in the 1960s.