In 1950s Case, Abuse Not Tolerated

By Amy McConnell
Concord Monitor [New Hampshire]
March 5, 2003

On several occasions, New Hampshire's Catholic officials covered up their priests' crimes against teenage boys, transferring molesters to new parishes without mentioning their past offenses. But in at least one early case involving teenage girls, officials not only barred the priest - the Rev. John Sullivan - from working anywhere in New Hampshire after several offenses, but ultimately warned more than a dozen bishops of dioceses around the country to steer clear of him.

"My conscience will not allow me to recommend him to any bishop, and I feel that every inquiring Bishop should know some of the circumstances that range from parenthood, through violation of the Mann Act (against female prostitution), attempted suicide and abortion," then-Bishop Matthew Brady wrote in 1957 and 1958 to the bishops whom Sullivan had begged to hire him.

Sullivan died in 1999 at the age of 82.

The Sullivan case was just one of 35 files on New Hampshire priests released Monday by the attorney general's office, which spent more than a year investigating allegations of sexual abuse by priests dating back more than 50 years. The case is remarkable not only for its age - the first complaint against Sullivan came in 1949 - but also for the extent to which church authorities disciplined Sullivan and tried to prevent contact with minors.

The file also raises the question of why church officials acted more responsibly with Sullivan than with some other priests, according to David Finkelhor, a professor of sociology and director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

The question might not have one easy answer; Brady might have been more conscientious than some of his successors, or Sullivan might have been particularly unpopular, or church officials might have felt more secure about admitting problems in the 1950s than they would in the decades to follow, Finkelhor said.

Unlike the 1970s, when parishioners and priests were abandoning the Catholic Church, church authority was being questioned and finances were suffering, the 1950s represented an era of relative security for the church, he said.

"The sense of not being able to show weakness, or of defensiveness, hadn't really crept into their thinking and their decision-making," said Finkelhor, who studies crimes against children.

But in a way, church officials could hardly avoid admitting that Sullivan was a problem. In 1949, a teenage girl under Sullivan's care in Claremont got pregnant and had to be hospitalized as a result of an attempted abortion. The girl signed an affidavit stating that Sullivan hadn't impregnated her or advised the abortion, but residents of the girl's apartment building told child welfare workers the girl and the priest had had a "close association" before her pregnancy.

"Father Sullivan's interest and activity was made the subject of considerable discussion in Claremont after he had altercations with her relatives in a public place," according to an internal memo in 1949 from the New Hampshire Children's Aid Society. Sullivan was transferred to St. Kieran's Parish in Berlin a few weeks later - although in this case, without any apparent warning to new parishioners, according to internal diocese memos.

While in Berlin, Sullivan harassed a Boston College nursing student, then tried to kill himself when church officials warned him to stop his advances. Between June and August 1952, Brady suspended him for harassing a young woman of his parish, then reassigned him to Holy Angels Parish in Plaistow.

In April 1956, while he was assigned to that parish, Sullivan was caught having sex with a prostitute in April 1956 in Lawrence, Mass. At about the same time, a parishioner sent Brady an anonymous note about Sullivan.

"He has been carrying on a clandestine affair with a high school girl for some time," the parishioner stated. "On days that the elderly Father (Sullivan's pastor in charge of the parish) is absent, he brings the young girl to the rectory and they are there for the afternoon."

Brady suspended Sullivan from performing priestly ministry anywhere in the state as of July 20, 1956, and sent him to live at Saint John the Evangelist rectory in Concord. The next fall, Brady asked for help from the Very Rev. Gerald Fitzgerald, the director of a New Mexico monastery, in dealing with Sullivan.

He had a "problem priest" made infamous by his "scandal-causing escapades" with young girls, Brady stated. There was no section of the diocese in which Sullivan's story was not known, and no New Hampshire pastor was willing to accept him.

"At times, I have considered him insane, diabolically cunning, and again, as at present, sincerely remorseful. . . . The solution of his problems seems to be a fresh start in some diocese where he is not known," Brady wrote.

A fresh start was not necessarily the answer, Fitzgerald said. Sullivan could come, but if he came he would have to stay, he said. Men like Sullivan repent only superficially - and even then, only so they again will be in a position to continue their activities, according to Fitzgerald. He would not be able to recommend Sullivan to another bishop.

"A new diocese means only greener pastures," Fitzgerald said.

Someday, he continued, Catholic leaders would have to create a uniform code of discipline and penalties in order to protect the priesthood's reputation from such behavior. Priests might be deterred if punishment were more consistent and better publicized.

"We are amazed to find how often a man who would be behind bars if he were not a priest is entrusted with cura animarum (the care of the soul)," Fitzgerald stated in his letter. "Whereas a more positive position, such as Your Excellency is taking in this case, would seem to add up to the prevention of these weak and irresponsible men from trailing their unlovely interpretations of the priesthood here and there throughout the country."

But Sullivan rejected the idea of going to the monastery; he wanted to work in a parish. He sent out inquiries to 17 bishops from Honolulu to North Dakota to New Orleans, looking for a new assignment.

Each of those bishops, however, contacted Brady to find out what kind of risk they might be running in taking on Sullivan, whose requests vaguely describe his problems with women.

And Brady apparently took Fitzgerald's warning to heart; over the next year, he warned the bishops that they might be placing their parishioners at risk by accepting Sullivan. All the dioceses but one in Michigan turned Sullivan down; there, however, Sullivan was unable to get along with his fellow priests and was dismissed.

Soon after returning to New Hampshire, Sullivan molested two teenage girls in Keene and ultimately fled to Fitzgerald's New Mexico monastery in 1961.

Sullivan lived and worked in New Mexico for the next two decades without reported incident. But in 1983 at the age of 66, he returned home to New Hampshire after his retirement and settled in Laconia, where he began doing part-time work at St. Joseph Church that August.

"My time is running out and I thought it best to return home permanently," he stated in a letter to Bishop Odore Gendron.

Within a month, however, Sullivan inappropriately touched and kissed a 13-year-old girl at his temporary parish and was again banned from acting as a priest.

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