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The Curious Case of Father Talbot

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Jan 26, 2005

Two weeks ago Jesuit priest Fr. James Talbot, S.J., pleaded guilty to rape, assault with intent to rape, and three counts of assault and battery, related to two students he sexually abused when he taught and coached at Boston College High School.

Why is this noteworthy? Because last year Talbot's religious superiors were battling prosecutors all the way to the state's Supreme Judicial Court, arguing that they should not be forced to turn over Talbot's personnel files. The Jesuits lost.

A Suffolk Superior Court judge, at the request of prosecutors, ordered the Jesuits and Talbot to hand over letters the priest had written to his superiors and notes that one of Talbot's superiors made of a conversation he had with him after the allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced in 1998. Attorneys for the religious order and Talbot objected, arguing that the documents were part of the order's internal review of Talbot's fitness to serve as a Jesuit based on the order's religious beliefs, not secular standards.

Back in 2003, fourteen victims of Talbot had been awarded $5.2 million in damages to settle civil claims, and at the time it struck me as bizarre that his superiors should choose Talbot, of all people, to serve as a rallying point for a costly defense of First Amendment liberties.

But Talbot's exceedingly tardy guilty plea, for which he was sentenced yesterday to five to seven years in prison, may explain quite a bit.

Talbot's rape and assault crimes at BC High took place in the 1970s. In 1980 he was transferred to a Jesuit school in Maine, where he continued to molest boys. He was finally removed in 1998 after a complaint was filed in Portland. At the peak of the media frenzy in March 2002, the Jesuits were questioned as to whether Talbot's history of sexual predation was a factor in his transfer. They denied it.

The Rev. John Murray, S.J., the assistant to the Jesuits' New England provincial, said Talbot's 1980 transfer from B.C. High to Cheverus High School, a Jesuit preparatory school in Portland, Maine, was "routine," prompted in part because Cheverus was fielding a soccer team for the first time.

A routine transfer? Almost immediately after Fr. Murray's statement, reporters revealed that there were four other Jesuits at BC High, in addition to Talbot, who were known to have sexually abused students. One of these abuser-priests was Fr. Stephen Dawber, S.J., who -- get this -- happened to be the principal of Cheverus High School when Talbot was moved there in 1980. Dawber himself eluded any disciplinary measures for his homosexual importuning and was only suspended in March of 2002, by which time, amazingly, he had returned to BC High.

Five to seven is a stiff sentence -- especially when you consider that Talbot copped a plea, meaning that his advisors declined a fight because they recognized the good possibility that the outcome of a trial might be considerably worse. But worse for whom? Who stood to lose?

It's hard to imagine that Talbot's attorneys or Jesuit superiors learned much about his actual guilt after they yanked him in 1998 -- after all, they were party to a huge settlement in 2003. He could have pleaded guilty at his criminal arraignment back in 2002 and saved two years of legal fees. What changed in the meantime? The Suffolk DA got the green light to examine the Jesuits' files.

Now just suppose -- as a purely hypothetical conjecture -- that sending one Jesuit who had abused students at BC high to a school headed by another Jesuit who had abused students at BC High was not a "routine transfer." And suppose that records that proved it was not routine existed in the Jesuit archives. This would explain both the Jesuits' peculiarly keen interest in vindicating First Amendment immunity, and, after losing that battle and becoming vulnerable to a subpoena of personnel files, their about-face on Talbot. "After reviewing the case, Jimmie my lad, it's not so complex after all."

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