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Warnings unheeded
This undated portrait of Bishop Matthew Brady hangs in the hallway of a high school named for him in Concord, N.H. In the late 1950s, Brady had to deal with a Roman Catholic priest who molested girls.
Associated Press

Bishop alerted others about abusive priest in the 1950s, files show

CONCORD, N.H. - The time was the 1950s, and the situation was one that Bishop Matthew Brady was unsure how to handle - an errant Roman Catholic priest who molested girls, even fathering a child with one.

His instinct was to give the Rev. John T. Sullivan another chance, a fresh start in a new diocese. But when he sought advice from a treatment center for abusive clergymen, the response was unequivocal: Molesters of his kind can't be cured, only contained.

So Brady began a campaign, sending explicit details of Sullivan's conduct to bishops around the nation, warning them not to offer the priest work and saying "my conscience will not allow me to recommend him to any bishop."

Once informed, most bishops wanted nothing to do with Sullivan. Yet Brady's strategy ultimately failed; Sullivan eventually secured a parish in Michigan and continued on his abusive path.

Still, Brady's actions stand out amid a sea of revelations that church leaders routinely reassigned abusive priests - especially because the bishop's campaign happened so long ago. Critics say the case shows it was easy even then for prelates to see that putting molesters back into parishes would have disastrous consequences.

The file on Sullivan, who never faced any charges and died in 1999, was released in March as part of 9,000 documents made public following the attorney general's investigation of how the Diocese of Manchester handled abuse allegations.

The document release was the most complete to date in any of the 195 U.S. dioceses, so it is difficult to judge how unusual Brady's efforts were. But the Rev. David O'Leary, a moral theology professor studying the scandal, called them remarkable.

O'Leary, who teaches at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., said in a telephone interview that he knew of no other bishop doing so much so long ago to warn others about a problem priest.

"That was highly unusual," he said. "It would be very extraordinary that Bishop Brady went to those lengths."

Last summer, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops launched a multiyear study of the extent and causes of the abuse scandal, and of the psychology and sexuality of priests. Without prejudging the findings, Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, spokesman for the conference, said Brady was only one of many bishops who took decisive action against sexual abuse decades ago.

Maniscalco said it would be wrong to assume Brady understood sexual abuse then as it is understood now, however.

"It may have been almost a theological judgment, that a man who does this sort of thing may be able to be forgiven his sins, but he shouldn't be functioning in the clergy," Maniscalco said.

In speeches and writings, Bishop Wilton Gregory, the conference president, has said the sexual abuse crisis has been widely recognized by the U.S. church since at least 1985. Gregory acknowledges that some bishops were slow to respond, and that the church erred for years first by treating abuse as a moral failing to be addressed by penance, and later as a mental illness that could be controlled or cured.

But Richard Sipe, a former priest and an authority on sexual abuse in the church, said the Brady correspondence shows that many church officials understood the problem, and its intractability, decades ago.

"The bishops knew very well how difficult this was," Sipe said. "And they knew to cover up things. They needed to (move) these people from one diocese to another, one assignment to another, and sometimes one country to another."

Brady started as a priest in Connecticut and was made bishop of Vermont in 1938, where he served until coming to New Hampshire in 1945.

During his tenure in New Hampshire, Brady dealt with repeated complaints about Sullivan, who was ordained in 1942.

In 1949, parishioners in Berlin reported Sullivan for inappropriate conduct with a teenage girl who had been hospitalized after an attempted abortion. Sullivan acknowledged he was the father, and paid to support the child until the woman married.

In 1952, Sullivan was temporarily suspended after he stalked a nursing student and attempted suicide by car exhaust. In 1956, he was suspended again following another alleged pregnancy and an illegal abortion. This one involved a criminal investigation in Massachusetts that, according to church memos, was hushed up by a prosecutor to avoid scandal.

Brady didn't initially consider Sullivan hopeless. In 1957, he wrote to officials of Via Coeli, a New Mexico treatment facility for priests, asking them to help Sullivan so he could resume his priestly duties.

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

But the Rev. Gerald Fitzgerald, the director of the facility, told Brady that priests such as Sullivan could not be cured.

"Their repentance and amendment is superficial and, if not formally at least subconsciously, is motivated by a desire to be again in a position where they can continue their wonted activity," he wrote. "A new diocese means only green pastures."

Brady gave Sullivan a choice: be confined to the New Mexico facility forever or leave the priesthood. Sullivan wanted neither, and - with Brady's permission - sought work in another diocese.

For the next few months, Sullivan asked dioceses around the country to take him in. When their bishops asked Brady about him, Brady was candid.

"His possible usefulness in any section of the diocese is at an end," he wrote in his standard response to such inquiries. He sent more than a dozen such letters between October 1957 and March 1958.

Brady said he felt "every inquiring bishop should know some of the circumstances that range from parenthood, through violation of the Mann Act, attempted suicide and abortion." The Mann Act applies to crossing state lines for criminal sexual activity.

Despite a dire shortage of priests, most bishops turned Sullivan down. But in March 1958, he was offered a place in the Grand Rapids, Mich., Diocese. Two years later his bishop described him as a "psychopath" and dismissed him.

Brady died in 1959. The next year, Sullivan asked Brady's successor, Bishop Ernest Primeau, for a parish in New Hampshire. But Primeau and chancellor Thomas Hansberry continued Brady's policy, denying Sullivan work as a priest and warning other dioceses about him.

Nonetheless, Sullivan kept finding new assignments in other states. He was forced to abandon one after another as new allegations arose.

In 1982, Sullivan retired from the Phoenix Diocese and returned to New Hampshire. In 1983, Bishop Odore Gendron stripped him of his faculties for allegedly abusing a 13-year-old girl in Laconia.

"It's a very remarkable piece of evidence, but it's not a remarkable piece of knowledge," Sipe said of the Sullivan file.

"Brady was not alone in knowing this. Many religious superiors knew this and kept the men under lock and key, so to speak, because they knew they couldn't be controlled."

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