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'I don't know who is stopping this': Advocates urge Mass. AG to issue report on clergy sexual abuse

Twenty years ago this month, the then-attorney general of Massachusetts, Thomas F. Reilly, issued a report on an investigation of child sexual abuse at the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.

"[T]he Office of the Attorney General initiated an extensive investigation, which involved prosecutors, State Police, civilian investigators, and the Grand Jury," the report read. "[I]t is essential to create an official public record of what occurred so that this type of widespread abuse of children might never happen again here or elsewhere."

In the two decades since, the state’s top prosecutor has not published a report on clergy abuse at the three other dioceses in Massachusetts — Springfield, Fall River or Worcester.

But several survivors and advocates said they were interviewed for a report on those dioceses by the attorney general’s office nearly two years ago, when it was headed up by Maura Healey, in the fall of 2021.

They’re still waiting for the report.

'You don’t want to disappoint God'

Skip Shea, 63, recently walked inside the kitchen of a large house — more like a mansion — in Whitinsville. When he was 14, in the summer of 1974, he mowed the lawn here.

At the time, this property was known as the House of Affirmation, a treatment center for priests run by the Worcester Diocese. Priests came here from all over the country to be treated for depression, alcoholism — and for having abused children.

Shea pointed out a back stairway beyond the kitchen that led upstairs. He said the priest running the treatment center would invite him and other young men up these stairs, where there was a stereo.

"A lot of them were priests who were younger, who were aware of pop culture at the time. So they would have the new Grand Funk album upstairs. ‘Do you want to come listen to it on this new stereo?’ ‘Sure.’ ‘Have a beer.’ And then it would just start," Shea said.

The sexual abuse would start.

A staircase in what was once the House of Affirmation, a treatment center for pedophile priests run by the Worcester Diocese in Whitinsville, Massachusetts. The stairs lead to rooms where teenage boys were allegedly sexually abused by priests.
Nancy Eve Cohen
/
NEPM
A staircase in what was once the House of Affirmation, a treatment center for pedophile priests run by the Worcester Diocese in Whitinsville, Massachusetts. The stairs lead to rooms where teenage boys were allegedly sexually abused by priests.

He said it happened about eight times over the course of a couple of years, in more than one building on that property.

And it had happened to him before. Starting when he was 11, Shea said he had been sexually assaulted by a priest at St. Mary’s Parish in Uxbridge. He said, later, a second priest there abused him.

Shea had been taught from a young age that priests were one step closer to God. "That was used," he said, as leverage by the priests who abused him.

"'You don’t want to disappoint God. God doesn’t want to see you cry,'" he recalled a priest saying.

But he did cry.

"I was crying," Shea said. "This was when it first started. I was definitely crying."

The sexual abuse led to years of alcoholism, depression and an attempt at suicide.

But today, Shea is 25 years sober and an outspoken advocate for justice for survivors of abuse. So, nearly two years ago, when the Massachusetts attorney general’s office asked to speak with him, he told his story to people in the AG’s Worcester office. One was a state police officer, Shea said.

"They were working on a report on the Worcester Diocese and I think they were really interested in the House of Affirmation," he said.

He described being abused there by three priests. The investigators took notes.

"They were really kind as to how they asked the questions. They seemed to care," he said. "I think that they would probably want the report to come out the way that they were really empathetic with everything that I was saying. So I don't know who is stopping this [report]."

Skip Shea stands inside a building that was once known as the House of Affirmation, a treatment center in Whitinsville, Massachusetts, for pedophile priests. It was run by the Diocese of Worcester. The state's charitable immunity cap got in the way of a lawsuit Shea filed against the diocese. The suit alleged a priest in the diocese sexually abused him when he was a minor.
Nancy Eve Cohen
/
NEPM
Skip Shea stands inside a building that was once known as the House of Affirmation, a treatment center in Whitinsville, Massachusetts, for pedophile priests. It was run by the Diocese of Worcester. The state's charitable immunity cap got in the way of a lawsuit Shea filed against the diocese. The suit alleged a priest in the diocese sexually abused him when he was a minor.

At the time, Maura Healey was attorney general. Now governor of Massachusetts, Healey's office declined to comment.

A spokesperson for the new attorney general, Andrea Campbell, declined to comment on whether the office had been working on a report on the Worcester, Springfield and Fall River dioceses — or whether it would be published.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Diocese of Worcester said, "As a matter of policy we cooperate with any and all civil and criminal investigations."

"For example, since 2002, we have reported every allegation of sexual abuse of a minor since we were founded in 1950 and continue to report every allegation we receive to the [district attorney]," the statement said.

The Diocese of Springfield also said it fully cooperates with authorities investigating cases of alleged abuse, and noted its memorandum of understanding with local prosecutors in western Massachusetts.

"Beyond that, I would refer any further questions to the attorney general’s office," a spokesperson wrote.

The Fall River Diocese did not respond to requests for comment.

'That investigation was done and people need to know the results'

Shea’s meeting with state investigators took place on September 29, 2021. About a month later, Terence McKiernan, the president of Bishop Accountability, and his colleague, also met with the AG’s office.

"We were contacted by the attorney general's office and invited to come in for a conversation about an investigation that they were clear was going to result in a report on Fall River, Worcester and Springfield dioceses," McKiernan said. "We actually did come in for that fairly long meeting on October 25, 2021."

He said it was clear the AG’s office was aware of what happened at the House of Affirmation.

"We followed that up by sending them over 1,500 pages of documents, that particularly related to the House of Affirmation and the Diocese of Worcester," McKiernan said.

They included information about one of the priests who allegedly abused Skip Shea at St. Mary’s Parish and how the diocese dealt with complaints about that priest.

"Crucial information if you're going to assess how a diocese is handling accusations of child sexual abuse," he said.

McKiernan said the AG’s office asked him to keep the meeting confidential. Because he understood there was an investigation in progress, McKiernan kept silent — until now. He said if he were to continue to keep quiet, he would be helping conceal the results.

"These dioceses need to be investigated. That investigation was done and people need to know the results," he said. "You know, AG Reilly, back in 2003 when he issued his report, stated very clearly, the public record is essential. And that's even more true now than it was back then. We're eager to see this report. Lots of other people are, and we think it's high time that it appear."

Shortly after his meeting, McKiernan helped the AG’s office meet with Phil Saviano, a board member of Bishop Accountability and the founder of the New England chapter of SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. He was featured in the movie "Spotlight" as a survivor who pushed the Boston Globe to investigate clergy sexual abuse. Saviano said he had been abused in the 1960s by his parish priest at St. Denis, which was part of the Worcester Diocese.

But now Saviano was dying of cancer.

"I recall that they called and set up the meeting with Phil here at our home. He was in hospice here," said Jim Saviano, Phil's brother.

Jim Saviano said the AG’s office said it was investigating the Fall River, Springfield and Worcester dioceses. Two people came — one from the AG’s office and one from the state police. They talked with Phil Saviano for nearly two hours.

In this Feb. 15, 2002 file photograph, Phil Saviano poses for a portrait in his Boston home. Saviano, a clergy sex abuse survivor and whistleblower who played a pivotal role in exposing decades of predatory assaults by Roman Catholic priests in the United States, died Nov. 28, 2021. He was 69.
Steven Senne
/
AP
In this Feb. 15, 2002 file photograph, Phil Saviano poses for a portrait in his Boston home. Saviano, a clergy sex abuse survivor and whistleblower who played a pivotal role in exposing decades of predatory assaults by Roman Catholic priests in the United States, died Nov. 28, 2021. He was 69.

Jim Saviano said his brother was so happy he could contribute.

"He was always trying to shed the light on people and hold them accountable who had either participated or covered up the crimes," Jim Saviano said. "He was delighted to know the interest in holding them accountable had reached that level in the state."

That meeting was November 4, 2021. Phil Saviano died a few weeks later, on November 28.

'I don't know what the new attorney general's agenda is'

Mike McDonnell, the interim president of SNAP, said the AG’s office contacted his group to let them know an inquiry was going on, in case any individuals in the group wanted to provide information. He said these kinds of investigations are validating and healing for people who have been abused.

"This type of information, when it comes from the state's highest law enforcement official," McDonnell said, "says that we're standing on the side of survivors [and] we don't want to protect predators and those that have enabled them."

Skip Shea said he hopes an investigation like this might change laws, such as a charitable immunity cap often invoked by the Worcester Diocese. The statute limits the amount the church can be sued for to $20,000, making it hard for survivors to get a lawyer. Massachusetts is one of only a few states that has this type of cap.

He said it’s been nearly two years since he told the AG’s office his story.

"I want them to release the report," Shea said. "When Maura Healey became governor, I kind of gave up on it. I didn't expect anything to come of it, at that point. I mean, it's a different attorney general now. I don't know what the new attorney general's agenda is, if this is part of it. So who knows?"

Shea, who is talking for the first time about his meeting with investigators, said the Catholic Church won’t change until top government officials get involved.

And for other survivors who have stayed silent, Shea said, a report like this, verifying their abuse, could save their lives.

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.