An excerpt from Vows: The Story of A Priest, a Nun, and Their Son, a new book by Revealer contributor Peter Manseau.Vows is the best kind of religion journalism, drawing on multiple genres — memoir, obviously, but also investigative reporting, history, theology, and the drama of a thriller. In this excerpt, Manseau tells the real story behind one of the Boston priest abuse scandal’s headlines, that of his mother. As a teenager, Mary Doherty fell under the spell of a charismatic priest, Gerard Creighton. Creighton seduced Doherty; then, in order to assure her silence, he arranged to have her dentist remove her teeth. Decades later, Doherty — now Mary Manseau — undertook her own investigation.

You can also hear Manseau — and his parents — discuss Vows on NPR’s “Fresh Air.”

Early on a Thursday in August 1995, my mother got into her car and drove toward Boston. That much was common enough; several times each month, she would make a similar trip to see my grandmother, who still lived in the Dorchester neighborhood where Mom had born. This time, though, she wouldn’t stop there.

She had noticed recently that Reverend Gerard E. Creighton was still listed in the Archdiocese Directory, the annually published listing of all parishes, clergy and Catholic organizations in and around Boston. Creighton would have been just over seventy by then; the directory let her know he was retired from ministry and living in Dennis, one of Cape Cod’s picturesque seaside villages, a well-heeled community complete with lighthouses and a quaint shopping district for the seasonal influx of vacationers from the city. The thought of it – of old crude Creighton puttering around the beaches, playing the part of the respectable elderly priest – sharpened all the feelings that had been pressing in on her for decades. The Cape, after all, was where he had often taken her; it was the destination of those awful, groping drives in his car; the scene of the crime that had left her terrified she was pregnant even as she prepared to make her vows as a nun. Because of him, the Cape was the place where the life she had planned had ended and another had begun. So that’s where she was going now.

She wasn’t sure what she would say to him. Through the years, she had spoken to no one about this – to no one, that is, except for a series of confessors: the priests Creighton had taken her to see after each time he abused her; and, just a few days before setting to off to find him, an old family friend both she and my father had known since the Roxbury days. He had become her confidant and confessor over the last ten years. It was to him she had admitted that she sometimes imagined confronting Father Creighton, and it was he had who encouraged her to do so. “Confrontation can be good,” he’d said.

With that in mind as she made her way to the Cape, she felt perfectly calm for the first time she could remember. Before then, she had thought of all that had happened with Father Creighton as her fault, her sin, and the feeling of it, like a black spot on her soul, had left her permanently anxious. Now, though, driving in from the northern suburbs, past Medford and Somerville, the outlying towns where she had first worked as a nun; down through the half-dark of the South Station Tunnel and up into the light as the expressway emerged on the south side of Boston, the weight of that imagined sin left her. She listened to taped Irish music and drove without thinking, not worried about the confrontation to come, not the least bit afraid. When the highway rose over the streets of her childhood, she could see the redbrick tower of Saint Margaret’s Church out the passenger side window. No longer the highest point in the neighborhood, but still perfectly visible from a mile away, it reminded her again, half a century on, of who and what she was: Mary Doherty from Dorchester, a girl who had lived her whole life in the shadow of the church.

She reached Dennis ninety minutes later. With the help of a map she found the house she’d come looking for, but was dismayed to realize the address in the directory was out of date. Father Creighton had moved to Falmouth, a neighbor told her. Though she still was not sure exactly why she wanted to see him, she knew enough about herself to know she would always regret it if she’d come this far only to let this chance slip away. So she headed for Falmouth. It was less than thirty miles away, but in the summer traffic it took well over an hour. When she reached the town limits, she stopped into a gas station and borrowed their phonebook. She asked a few directions and was on her way.

Ten minutes later, she discovered that Creighton lived in one of Falmouth’s newer developments. A gatehouse at the entrance looked as though it might slow her down, but there was no guard on duty, no one to ask which resident she was there to see. It didn’t make much difference; had anyone asked, she would have said “Gerard Creighton” without hesitation. She’d kept his name a secret far too long.

It was a strange place for someone who had played such a singular role in her life to live: Identical houses, identical lawns, all neatly manicured; a community made up of the kind of quiet residential roads to nowhere that fill up with landscapers’ trucks as soon as all the Volvos and BMWs have gone off for the day. With a new address written in the notebook beside her, she drove past streets with names like Bumblebee and Wigwam and then turned on to Bob White Lane. Driving with one hand, leaning to the right to see out the passenger side window, she studied the numbers on the houses as they rolled by. When she saw one with an enormous blue and white statue of the Blessed Virgin out front, she looked at the number on the mailbox and was not surprised it was the one she’d come to find.

But again she was disappointed. She rang the bell, gave a good rap on the door, even peeked in the living room window. Inside, she saw more statues of the Virgin, a sacred heart image hanging on the wall, various other religious bric-a-brac, mainly tiny statues of the saints: Francis, Patrick, the usual suspects. It was all very tidy; not at all what she had expected. The way the place was kept up, she wondered who lived there with him – some woman, probably – though other than the decorative saints the place was deserted.

She knocked on a neighbor’s door.

“Sorry to bother you,” Mary told the woman who answered. “I’m looking for the Creightons. Do you know what time they come home?”

“Usually a little later,” the neighbor said. “Did you try the store?”

“The store?”

“His furniture shop. If he’s not here, he’s there.”

Of course, she thought; what else would he be doing with his retirement? Even as far back as when he was stationed at St Margaret’s, Father Creighton had been infamous for his elaborate business schemes: real estate speculation, construction deals, stock tips; anything that would let him make some extra money on the sly. His favorite sideline had always been selling furniture out of the rectory garage. Now that he was free to pursue such work without the encumbrance of his pastoral responsibilities, he had opened a couple of furniture stores nearby.

“It’s not far,” the neighbor said. “You can probably catch him before closing time.”

Closing time? She looked at her watch. Suddenly it was getting near five o’clock. She had been driving up and down the Cape for most of the day.

She got more directions, got back in the car, and in no time she was there: a big barn of a place just off Route 28. Furniture shopping is one of the Cape’s preferred pastimes; a tourist could have spent a full week browsing in the shops Mary had driven by in a single day. This one looked like any other. But, still, sitting in the parking lot, knowing who owned it, knowing that he might be waiting on the other side of the door, how could it not give her a chill?

Inside, there were several people milling about among a warehouse worth of sofas and coffee tables, floor lamps and easy chairs, beds and sideboards and bookcases, all arranged as if they were a dozen separate rooms packed in around each other like a house without walls. In an office connected to the showroom, Mary saw a young man unpacking boxes. A woman about her age, plump and harried-looking, popped up in front of her. “Can I help you?” she asked.

Mary just walked right by. Her eyes were drawn immediately to the rear of the store, to an elderly man with gray hair swooped across his head. He was dressed in baggy pants and canvas sneakers; his big glasses fell down his nose. He was talking and nodding his head perfunctorily to a customer, but when he looked up and saw who was walking toward him, his eyes flashed with pleased recognition.

“Mary Doherty!” he shouted. “What are you doing here?”

Quickly excusing himself from his conversation with the customer, he moved in her direction. The young man in the office looked up to see what the commotion was about; the woman by the door looked on smiling at this apparent reunion. They both seemed to study the situation as if curious to know who this lady was who could inspire such spontaneous affection in their usually gruff employer. Even the customer appeared interested, trying not to watch while she pretended to inspect her purchase.

Mary didn’t know what to do. The last thing she wanted was to cause a scene. Had she really imagined that would be possible? Then suddenly Creighton was in front of her, an old man smiling with his arms outstretched.

She hadn’t seen him in almost forty years. There was no doubt he was the man she had known, though. He still had the same smirking grin; the same jocular tone to his voice that barely concealed a deeper anger. There was still something careless to the way he put himself together, his shirt rumpled, half tucked-in; his pants so loose they swept the floor. The last time she had been touched by him, she was lying in a bed at Carney Hospital, her upper teeth removed earlier in the day. He had slid his hand under the bedsheet, found an opening in her hospital Johnny, and told her she would be fine. Four decades later, despite herself, she gave him the kind of hug she usually reserved for old friends. It was then she knew the real difference between her memory and the old man before her. He seemed smaller now in every way. When he wrapped his arms around her she could feel how he had shrunken in the shoulders. It felt like she was holding the bones of the priest he had been.

A public embrace inevitably draws attention and Mary felt it now: all those eyes on them, on her, somehow making the ugly fact of touching him again all the worse. She had not intended to create such a spectacle. She asked if they could speak privately, and so they sat down in a living room set on the other side of the showroom. Creighton told her he didn’t understand why she insisted on sitting so far from the front of the store. “That’s just my niece and the black kid who works here,” he said, shrugging innocently. What did they have talk about that they shouldn’t stay out in the open?

“I came to ask you why you hurt me,” Mary said.

Creighton’s eyes narrowed behind his glasses.

“Hurt you? I never hurt you.”

“What you did to me was wrong,” she said. “I came to ask you why you did it.”

He stared blankly. He had instantly remembered her face, her name. Though he was an elderly man now, and maybe his memory was fading, there was no way he would not remember this. Finally he said, “Well, you were eighteen.”

“No,” she said. “I was sixteen and then I was seventeen, and you were my priest.”

“This is why you came here? To throw rocks at me in my own store?”

“I came here for answers.”

She sat steaming. What had she expected? Remorse? A tearful apology? She was willing to forgive him and put it all behind her, but first he would have to admit he had done something wrong; that the things he had instructed her to confess all those years ago were not her sins but his.

“Everything alright over there Gerry?” The woman who had greeted Mary moved closer to the living room set. “I’m going to get my hair done. Do you need a ride home?”

“My niece,” Creighton said.

His niece – this time the word caught Mary’s attention. He was an only child, she remembered; he had always complained of being the only one who could take care of his mother. With no brothers, no sisters, he didn’t have any niece. She supposed this was the woman who lived with him. Did she have any idea what he had done?

Not that it mattered now. Mary could feel her chance slipping away. He would leave the store and who knows if she would ever find the courage to drive down here a second time and demand answers to his face. Then she recalled her friend’s advice: Confrontation can be good.

“Why don’t I drive you home?” she asked.

Creighton looked warily at Mary, then at the woman he called his niece. He stepped away from the living room set for a moment and had a word with her. When he came back to Mary he agreed she could drive him home. “But I need to close up first,” he told her, and shuffled off to the far corner of the store.

Waiting by the door, Mary watched as overhead lights clicked off in blocks around the store: lights out over the livingrooms; lights out over the bedrooms; lights out over the dining rooms and a gathering of miscellaneous ladder-back chairs. Soon every section of furniture sat in darkness. She was glad to be standing by the windowed entryway, with August evening light still shining in.

From somewhere in the showroom, Creighton called out, “You know how I got this place?”

“No.”

He stepped out of the shadows and again stood directly in front of her. “With the help of my mafia friends.”

“Is that supposed to scare me?” she asked, but Jesus it did. As they stepped out into the parking lot and made their way to her car, she wondered if someday soon it was going to explode around her.

For the entirety of the drive back to Bob White Lane, Father Creighton talked nonstop about his thriving business and his failing health. As much as she wanted to return to the discussion she had begun in the store, he wouldn’t let her get a word in. When they reached his home, another car was already in the driveway.

“My niece,” Creighton said again. Either she had had a very speedy haircut, or he had warned her this lady was trouble, had asked her to be waiting there at home.

Mary knew immediately she would not get any more answers out of him today. Even when she agreed to go inside, she knew it was not to talk over all the questions she had raised. For all the effect it had on him, she might as well have said nothing at all. Inside, he showed her around, pointed out the statues of saints she had seen through the window, told the tales of how and where he’d come across each. He made sure she saw the Sacred Heart hanging on the wall.

“I’m in good standing,” he said, using the canonical term meaning that he was still considered a priest. Mary did not yet know about the years of complaints made against him, but she knew what he had done to her, and she could not reconcile her memories of the man with the fact that, as far as the church was concerned, Father Creighton’s faith and his life were as pristine as the day he was ordained.

They sat together with glasses of ginger ale. The old man and his niece seemed so pleasant, so normal, at their kitchen table. He was rumpled and gray-faced, no different from any man of seventy; she was apparently happy to entertain an old acquaintance of his. Whether she was actually a niece or not, they were a kind of family. They obviously cared for each other. It was almost difficult to remember what he had done, who he had been, so long ago. The three of them chatted more about the house; Mary mentioned briefly her job, her husband, and her children. After an hour or more, no further opportunity to discuss the issue at hand had presented itself. She’d spent the day hoping for some kind of satisfaction, and suddenly it was time to go. Moving toward the door, addled by the awkwardness of leaving with a task half-done, with all she had meant to say still lodged in her head, she hugged him goodbye.

Back out in the car, she was no longer peaceful of mind as she had been that morning. She was as upset about what had happened to her as she had ever been. Now, though, she was not angry at herself, but at him. It was not some defect in her that had caused her all those years of depression and pain; it was not God that had forced himself on her, groped her and molested her not far from where this tidy Cape Cod home now stood; it was not she herself who had pulled out her teeth and sent her to the convent confused and grieving. No, it was not her fault. It was his. After thirty-seven years, it was about time she did something about it.

**

That night, my mother told my father where she had been. She told him the whole story of what had happened to her, said all she might have said thirty years before, when she’d told him that a priest had tried to kiss her. Among many of the priests of Dad’s generation, Father Creighton — “Pops” Creighton, as he was sometimes known – had been notorious for being impossible to work with and an occasional threat to parishioners. Dad had never met him, but he knew the type. Together, they sat down and wrote a letter.

She hoped a strongly worded restatement of the questions she had asked him in person would bring about some kind of response; he could not simply go on denying actions that were among the formative events of her life. But weeks went by and she heard nothing from him. It began to seem little else would happen with it, which would mean the courage she had found to confront him had been wasted. The more she thought about their meeting, though, about the way he was able to act and talk as if he had done nothing wrong, she began to wonder if perhaps he was so casual about her accusations because she was just one of many. If he hurt her, maybe he hurt others.

She went to the library at the Archdiocesan Seminary, St John’s, where Father Creighton and dozens of other priests accused of abuse had been trained. Keeping her intentions to herself, she asked to see all the directories of parishes and personnel for the last forty years. Then she sat by a window with a pen and a notebook, and leafed through every directory until she found the information she was looking for: Creighton’s assignments; more than twenty churches, from which she could glean all the places he had been, all the people he had known before and since the dark day when he walked into her life. She built a list: St Joseph’s, St Margaret’s, Our Lady of Lourdes… Somewhere, she thought, someone else had to have seen this man for what he was.

Obviously she couldn’t just call the current pastors. He’d been transferred so many times it was unlikely anyone in the rectory or the church office would have been there at the same time. But, she knew, the people in the pews have long memories, and they see more than the pastor and priests ever imagine. Back at home she checked the phonebook, found the local papers in each of the towns Creighton had been stationed, and made a phone call.

“Classifieds, please. Yes, I would like to place an ad.”

The following week, classified sections in newspapers around the state asked the question: DO YOU REMEMBER FATHER CREIGHTON?

Beneath she included only a P.O. box number; as far as she was concerned, nothing more needed to be said. If anyone remembered him, they would have an idea why someone was asking.

Almost immediately she began to hear from people who had seen the ad. One man said that he believed Father Creighton was the priest who had married him; the bride was a few minutes late and Creighton had ruined the ceremony by scolding the couple even as they took their vows. Another person wrote to say Father Creighton had once helped him move some furniture. Others had a complaint found throughout the priest’s personnel file, that he was more interested in making money than in serving God. A woman who worked as a parish secretary provided no further details but asked, “This is about abuse, isn’t it?” Through another tip, Mom learned the story of a recently married woman who’d had a run in with Creighton once when she having trouble with her husband. Good Catholic that she was, the newlywed went to the rectory of Saint Bridget’s in Abington to find a sympathetic ear. She was inside only a minute or two when Father Creighton appeared in the parlor wearing only his boxer shorts. As the story goes, he looked down, announced that his shorts were on backwards, and proceeded to strip them off in front of her. The woman left in hysterics and reported him to the police.

Nothing Mom learned about Creighton through her investigation was a surprise, and none of it made her feel any better. The thing that gnawed at her was that, as far as she could tell, Father Creighton was just going on with his life as if she had not confronted him at all.

What she did not know at the time, what she learned only from the pile of documents she later dropped before me, was that, far from being unaffected by her accusations, Creighton immediately contacted the Archdiocese for advice and assistance. In the chancery office in Brighton, Reverend Brian Flatley, Assistant to the Secretary for Ministerial Priesthood, made notes on their subsequent conversations, in which Father Creighton gave his account of all that happened between Mary Doherty and himself.

“Father Creighton swears that he never molested her or any other woman,” Flatley wrote. “He said something to the effect that he has his own urges, but that they don’t involve women.” As far as his interactions with young Mary in the spring and summer of 1958, Creighton claimed they were limited to a Red Sox game the two attended with St Margaret’s pastor, Father Farrell; a field trip to the movies – “I think it was The Ten Commandments,” Creighton said – and once or twice when he went to Carson Beach with the CYO.

“He is very upset,” Flatley continued. “His narrative was very agitated and ‘earthy’. He did reference a couple of times that he would like to kill her. (His file has numerous references to his owning a gun, and the fear of pastors and others that he would use it.)”

When my mother contacted the Archdiocese herself to inquire how to make a complaint of abuse by a priest, no mention was made that Creighton had threatened her life. In fact, for several months it was difficult to get any response at all. It was not until she had a lawyer make contact that things began to happen. Along with “The Facts,” her lawyer sent to Brighton formal statements of liability against Father Creighton; Father Farrell, his direct superior at Saint Margaret’s; Father Peter Hart, the priest to whom Creighton had taken Mary to confession; and the Archdiocese itself, which, through its refusal to do something about a notoriously “dangerous,” “sick,” and “homicidal” priest, put Mary Doherty and countless others in harm’s way.

Creighton’s file spanned four decades and more than twenty parishes, but it would not have taken long to find indications of what a menace he had long been. Nor did it take long for the Archdiocese to make an offer of settlement. For the sum of $150,000 and payment of her therapy fees, lawyers for the Archbishop of Boston asked Mom to drop all claims against the church. She signed a release that, in the quasi-religious language of the law, “forever discharges” the office of the Archbishop and all its “agents, servants, employees, officers, trustees, directors and independent contractors, of and from all debts, demands, causes of action, suits, accounts, covenants, contracts, agreements, damages, and any and all claims… I now have or ever had from the beginning of the world to this date, including but in now way limited to events which occurred in approximately 1958.” As part of the settlement, she also agreed, as was the church’s policy in such matters, that she would not reveal the details or the nature of her claim to anyone.

Though the release she signed made clear that, legally, the church admitted no culpability through its settlement, Mom was pleased to have received from the church something like an apology, if not in fact then in kind. However, she had still received nothing of the sort from Father Creighton, and it was his apology she wanted most of all. Her agreement with the Archdiocese did leave room for her to pursue a civil case against Creighton himself, and that was just what she planned to do.

Upon hearing of the settlement, Creighton called the chancery again. It’s conceivable he truly had no idea of the case his own file made against him, for he was apparently bewildered why the church would choose to settle, which he saw as a move that aided her cause by casting doubt on him. Among the things he said about my mother, all recorded by various officers of the Archdiocese: “I don’t want to hear from this bitch the rest of my life;” “She downplayed her kids when she was here, not proud of them. Disappointed with her husband. Looking for annulment grounds;” and perhaps most damningly as far as he was concerned: “She’s anti-pope, wants a married clergy.”

When the Secretary for the Ministerial Priesthood wrote to Father Creighton summarizing the pending case against him, he could barely contain his rage: “Someone will pay for my anger.” “I get a letter like this it’s like waving a red flag in front of a bull.” “My father said the only way to deal with a rattlesnake is to get away from it and crush its head with a stone.”

**

By the time I learned all this, sitting at my parents’ kitchen table with hundreds of pages of court documents spread out before me, the civil case my mother initiated had already been through a cycle of decisions and appeals. It had begun, I realized, during my last year of college. I’d noticed at the time that my parents had seemed closer, more affectionate. I can still see my father holding my mother in the kitchen, and I can hear her sighing in his arms. I know now that he was consoling her through a troubling time. While I was considering and then rejecting the notion of disappearing into the monastery, I was oblivious to the story unfolding at home.

Had it ended there, I may never have heard a word about it. As Mom said, they had told me only because “it was going to be in the news.”

When a comprehensive history of the scandal of sexual abuse and cover up in the Roman Catholic Church is written, the case of Jane Doe v Gerard Creighton will be at most a footnote, but an important one. As fate would have it, Doe v Creighton reached the highest court in the state just as the long history of the church’s protection of dangerous priests became known.

In the years since Mom had begun her case – she confronted Creighton in 1995; filed suit in 1998; lost an initial judgment in 2001, and won an appeal in 2002 – everything about the way the church dealt with abuse, and the way the world dealt with the church, had changed. Before the abuse crisis and the intense media scrutiny it brought, claims of injuries caused by members of the Catholic clergy were settled as quietly as possible. The confidentiality agreement my mother signed is one example of this; another occurred several years before, when the then-Archbishop of Boston, Bernard Cardinal Law, told a young man abused by a priest that he was bound “by the power of the confessional” to never again speak of the crimes committed against him. The church found it easy to silence such people: Many victims were shamed by what they had survived; hence the pseudonym with which my mother filed her suit. For everyone else, it was just as easy to look the other way.

All of that changed significantly with the revelation, at the start of 2002, of the hierarchy’s coddling of Father John Geoghan. My mother began her case in a pre-Geoghan era of silence, but she was ending it in a post-Geoghan world hungry for news of priests and sex.

With more than 500 civil actions against abusive clergy pending in the county courts, and the prospect of many more to come if the first wave proved successful, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts sought to make a statement about an issue that would inevitably be central to every case that would follow: the statute of limitations. The vast majority of allegations were being made ten, twenty, thirty years after the acts of abuse. Because Mom’s trouble with Creighton had occurred a full forty years before, it represented to the court the outer limit of possible cases. It was a perfect test case for answering the question on which many of the lawsuits would rest: How late is too late to take action in response to harm done to a child?

In Massachusetts, the statute of limitations to prosecute someone for rape of a minor runs out fifteen years from the time the crime was committed. In civil cases, however, charges of childhood sexual abuse are handled differently. At the time of this writing, the law states that action must be taken up to three years after the victim has reached eighteen years of age, or three years after the victim “discovered or reasonably should have discovered” that the abuse had caused lingering psychological injuries or conditions which may not have been evident at the time the crime was committed. This clause in statute obviously leaves considerable room for interpretation; it was into this gray area that Doe v Creighton fell.

Mom’s contention, and that of her lawyers, was that she did not fully appreciate the extent to which Creighton’s actions had been the cause of her ongoing depression and emotional trauma until she had made the decision to confront him. Only then, only after the recognition that it was the after-effects of his sin, not hers, she had been aching with all these years, was she able to see a causal connection between the dark feelings she still had and the abuse she had suffered so long ago. In discussions of the case and the statute of limitations in the media around Boston, “when does the clock start ticking?” became a constant refrain. To her there was no doubt about it: The three-year clock set by the statute of limitations did not start ticking until the day she drove to the Cape, looked him in the eye, and asked for answers.

Needless to say, Creighton and his lawyers had a different opinion.

Early on in the case, his attorneys seemed intent on damaging my mother’s credibility. In their deposition of her, they seem to infer several times that she has a longstanding sexual obsession with priests, asking questions as if at sixteen years old she’d been the Lolita of the Archdiocese of Boston. Her answers are exactly as worldly as you’d expect from a woman who spent her first decade of adulthood in a convent.

Lawyer: Have you ever been sexually attracted to any priest or former priest other than your own husband?…

Mom: I’m not really sure about sexual attraction. I—you know, I need to know what you think of that. I don’t—do you mean you see somebody and you say oh, he’s nice. Do you call that sexual attraction?

Lawyer: Why don’t we go by your definition of sexual attraction. What do you understand that term to mean?

Mom: That I could see somebody and say ‘Oh, he’s nice.’

Lawyer: Somebody’s a physically attractive person?

Mom: Sure.

Lawyer: And you’ve had that feeling or experience with respect to other priests or former priests throughout your adult lifetime, is that correct?

Mom: Yes.

Lawyer: And other than the occasion with respect to your husband, have you ever acted on your feelings of sexual attraction towards any priest or former priest?

Mom: No.

A second front of this strategy seems to have been to make Creighton seem as righteous and priestly as possible. Because of the release Mom had signed as part of her settlement with the Archdiocese, no church records could be obtained by discovery in Doe v Creighton. No part of his complaint-ridden personnel file could be used to refute his claims of all-around innocence. Without the most damning evidence against him, Mom’s lawyers challenged him as best they could.

Lawyer: Mr. Creighton, are you still a priest today?

Creighton: Yes, it’s an indelible mark on the soul.

Lawyer: An indelible mark on the soul?

Creighton: Yes. I am a priest as long as I am in this world. I have kept my vows.

Lawyer: What were those vows?

Creighton: What were those vows?

Lawyer: Yes.

Creighton: Chastity and obedience. Poverty we didn’t have a vow to.

Lawyer: Anything besides chastity and obedience?

Creighton: No, not really. That’s enough.

Lawyer: What does chastity mean to you?

Creighton: What does chastity mean to me?

Lawyer: Yes.

Creighton: It means you lead a good life, we don’t marry, we don’t cavort with women and we do what we are supposed to do—

Lawyer: What does cavort mean?

Creighton: —observe the 10 Commandments of God.

Lawyer: You said you don’t cavort with women. What do you mean when you use the word cavort?

Creighton: Well I don’t know. You can interpret that anyway you want.

Lawyer: How do you interpret it? What is it that you don’t do with women?

Creighton: I don’t do anything with women.

Lawyer: Your interpretation of the vow of chastity mean to you that you don’t do what with women?

Creighton: We’re celibate, we don’t marry. That is basically the vow of chastity.

Lawyer: You don’t marry. Are you allowed to have sexual relations with women?

Creighton: No, we are not.

Lawyer: So your vow of chastity includes not having sexual relations with women?

Creighton: Correct.

Lawyer: When you use the word sexual relations do you interpret that to mean sexual intercourse?

Creighton: It can be wider than that.

Lawyer: What is the breadth of that?

Creighton: It is a very difficult question to answer. Anything that is against the Commandments of Jesus Christ.

Lawyer: Let me be more specific. Is it encompassed within your vow of chastity to not touch a woman on her breasts?

Creighton: Sure. Absolutely.

Lawyer: Is it within your vow of chastity not to touch a woman on her ass? Excuse the word.

Creighton: Yes.

Lawyer: Is it within your vow of chastity not to touch a woman on her crotch?

Creighton: Right.

Lawyer: Is it within your vow of chastity to not comment to a woman about her body?

Creighton: Yes. I would say yes.

Lawyer: Is it within your vow of chastity to not expose your genitals to a woman?

Creighton: Absolutely.

Lawyer: Have you been faithful to your vow of chastity since you took that vow when you first became a priest?

Creighton: Yes.

Lawyer: And is that true to this present day?

Creighton: Yes.

As was her right as plaintiff, Mom sat in on Father Creighton’s deposition and found his performance on the whole as scripted as his first lines had been. Despite the fact that he had recognized Mom immediately at the time of her visit to his furniture shop, when he entered the law office conference room and saw her seated at the table, he turned to his lawyer and asked “Who’s that?” as if he was just a guileless old man who’d doddered in off the street.

**

The morning the SJC was scheduled to hear the case, Mom, Dad and I rode down together to the courthouse in Boston. As Spag had said of their wedding, it seemed like the whole world was packed in there. With so many clergy-abuse cases pending, every one of them possibly affected by what was said in the courtroom that day, the visitors’ gallery was filled with lawyers and reporters. We settled in among them, no one knowing that the short-haired woman in the third row from the back was the Jane Doe who had set all this in motion.

Having read through the depositions and other court documents, I was surprised when Creighton’s lawyer addressed the court. The lawyer’s approach was not one of arguing against my mother’s credibility. In fact, her argument, though peppered with the word “alleged”, seemed to take for granted the guilt of her client. What was at issue here was not the what or the when of the abuse, but the what and when of its effects on the victim.

I scanned the room. At the front of the court, five judges sat staring down the attorneys, one of whom was speaking at a podium while the rest were seated behind her, taking copious notes. Behind the lawyers were a gaggle of court workers, and then there were the observers’ benches, strangely like pews, in which everyone sat with an ear cocked toward the front; with the awkward acoustics of the high-ceilinged room, it was otherwise impossible to hear.

Creighton was nowhere to be seen, and who could blame him. Because of the peculiar wording of the statute of limitations, I realized, his guilt in a perverse way actually helped his case. His lawyer quoted from an evaluation written by Mom’s psychologist that told of her memories of the awful feelings she’d had upon entering the convent; of the debilitating depression she suffered because of what Creighton had done. The lawyer argued that especially in “so pure and chaste an environment” as the Sisters of Saint Joseph novitiate, Jane Doe surely would have known that it was Creighton who had made her feel this way. That she saw a causal connection between the incidents of physical abuse and the lingering mental trauma was all Creighton’s lawyers needed to demonstrate, and nothing suggested such a connection like the facts of what he had done and how it had made her feel.

Mom’s lawyer countered with expert testimony about posttraumatic stress disorders and the ways in which victims create psychological barriers that prevent them from fully recognizing the root causes of their injuries. The particular trauma the lawyer hoped to discuss he referred to as “the mutilation,” Father Creighton’s role in the removal of Jane Doe’s teeth. The judges, however, kept asking about the fear and the sadness she felt in the convent. If she knew then, in 1958, that she had been wronged and it made her feel bad, how could she contend she saw no connection between Father Creighton and her long-term suffering until 1995? Try as he might, the lawyer could not come up with an answer that satisfied the court.

“If I may add a word about the mutilation,” Mom’s lawyer said.

“I’m sorry,” one of the judges responded. “You’re out of time.”

**

Three months later, the front page of the Boston Globe announced the end of a chapter of my mother’s life.

SJC Rejects Abuse Suit Reaching Back to ‘50s.

In a significant victory for church officials in the clergy sex abuse cases, the Supreme Judicial Court yesterday dismissed a suit by a woman who said she had been molested by a priest in the 1950s, ruling that she had waited too long to sue.

The unanimous decision may provide the Archdiocese of Boston with new ammunition in fighting many of the roughly 500 civil lawsuits filed by people who say they were sexually abused by priests decades ago.

As the court ruling had it: “While we recognize that, in some circumstances, sexual abuse victims may develop coping mechanisms that might obscure the source of their injuries, a plaintiff who brings suit beyond the normal statutory limitations period may not reach a jury simply by presenting evidence that sexual abuse took place… There is, in short, no evidence tending to support the plaintiff’s contention that an ordinary, reasonable person in her position would fail to realize, for almost four decades, that her injuries were caused by the defendant.”

That’s what it came down to: Not what Mom knew, but what should have been known by “an ordinary, reasonable person.”

The “reasonable person standard” invoked here is a commonly used device in legal thinking that purports to allow objectivity in forming opinions of human actions. It holds that there is a proper response to any circumstance that would be identical to the response of a person motivated only by reason.

I was not surprised to learn that this is what is called a “legal fiction.” Using something as slippery as reasonableness to judge what someone should have known or done seems flawed in any situation. In this case, with the facts of Doe v Creighton tied up as they were in matters of faith, it seems all the more so. If a “reasonable person” is meant to be understood as one who has shared the experience of the individual in question, then in my mother’s case I wonder if the reasonable person the justices had in mind was someone who grew up dutifully saying her prayers each night to shorten her stay in purgatory; or perhaps their reasonable person was someone raised to believe priests are stand-ins for Jesus Christ. I wonder if the justices could explain how such a reasonable person could continue to love her church, despite it all.

**

Mom sulked for a week following the SJC’s decision. Since her days on the Monsignor Ryan Memorial varsity basketball team, she had always been a fierce competitor. The worst of it was knowing that Creighton would think he had won. He would go on selling furniture and basking in the light of the Cape as if he had never troubled a soul in his life. It was all she could to do to resist the temptation of trying to stick it to him one more time. “I just want to get him,” she would say; by which she meant, I think, that she wished she could force him, somehow, to acknowledge what he had done.

Through the months of media coverage of the court rulings, she had been saving clippings, every newspaper article she came across that mentioned his name. “It doesn’t matter,” she would say of the court ruling. “At least his name will always be associated with abuse. Maybe someday the case will end up in the law books, right? Then everyone will know.”

She thought about photocopying her collection of clippings and sending them to him, along with the page of the new archdiocese directory that showed the church no longer listed him among its retired clergy. To Mom, that was as good as saying they no longer considered him a priest; she wanted to be sure he knew it. She held back from contacting him, though, finally content that a small measure of justice had been served when she found one last article about the case, this one from the famously opinionated editorial page of the Boston Herald.

In a punchy column headlined “Statute Runs Out, Pain of Abuse Stays” the Herald recounted the story behind Doe v Creighton: the girl who wanted to be a nun; the priest who had been chased from one parish to another for more than thirty years. It told of what he had done to her, and of all the complaints made against him. It told also what the church and the bishops had failed to do to stop him. Then the columnist quoted a letter, which I had already read in the case file; a letter sent to Cardinal Humberto Medeiros by the same pastor who had worried that Creighton might kill someone someday:

“Why must we always place the immediate accommodation of the priest above the good of the church?” he wrote. “Why should so many people have to be abused and insulted and alienated just so that we can give this man a place to sleep? We seem to have our values confused.”

Mom thought the column was the best thing she’d read in years. One line especially made her hoot with satisfaction: “In short, the man was a pig,” it said, “a pig in a clerical collar but a pig just the same.”

Grinning ear to ear, the paper still spread out in front of her, she reached for the phone and called the Herald.

“Editorial department, please,” she said, and then asked to be connected to the columnist directly.

Five years before, when she had decided to press forward with her case, she had done so concerned about maintaining her privacy, her anonymity, and so she’d hidden herself behind a pseudonym as opaque as her habit had been. Today, though, she felt a need to claim what she had accomplished and who she had become. Maybe the case had been dismissed, but nonetheless she had made it happen. She was no longer the lost little girl looking to the church tower to guide her home; she was a woman stepping out of the shadows at last.

“Hello, I have a comment about your column today,” she said. “I just wanted to say thank you. This is Jane Doe.”