By Sarah E. Murphy
Many of the names on this long overdue list of 75 priests credibly accused of sex abuse, finally released by the Fall River Diocese on January 7, are no surprise to me, but they’re a sad validation of the work I’ve been quietly doing for the past three years. “Father Bill” Baker is the reason I started this investigation in the first place. He’s also one of the main reasons I left the Roman Catholic religion, shortly after being confirmed at St. Patrick’s Church in Falmouth as a teenager in the late 1980s.
Jim Scanlan, who is quoted in the article, is a social justice warrior, and one of the first people to support my motivation to expose the Catholic crimes in my hometown. I was introduced to him in 2018 through a dear family friend, although he was already familiar to me as “Kevin from Providence,” the inspiration for a character in the 2015 Oscar winning film “Spotlight,” based on the Boston Globe’s groundbreaking 2002 investigation into the Archdiocese of Boston’s clergy sex abuse cover-up.
Since Jim came forward about being raped while he was a student at BC High, by hockey coach and teacher Father James Talbot, he has utilized his platform to expose clergy sex abuse and advocate for statute of limitation reform. One of his motivations for doing so was learning Talbot had admitted to abusing and raping up to 88 young men. Knowing he could prevent even one more from the trauma he endured as a teenager, and still endures, was all the motivation he needed, and his testimony was instrumental in putting Talbot behind bars for seven years. As Jim notes, the list is too little too late, and is undoubtedly incomplete. I can see a few omissions from my own research, namely Reverend William Campbell, also from my former parish.
I was just a little too young to be one of Bill Baker’s targets, but he preyed upon several other girls at St. Patrick’s Church in Falmouth, Massachusetts in the late 1970s, back when my family still practiced Catholicism. One of his victims told me her story in graphic detail; she was an eighth-grader at Lawrence School when he first started abusing her. Another woman, who was able to escape his evil intentions, recalls playing tennis with Baker, and the inappropriate comments he made, in an obvious effort to gauge how far he could take his deviant behavior with the young girl. When he decided that she wasn’t a potential target for his advances, he backed off. Classic examples of grooming behavior. Another one of Baker’s victims died by suicide.
There have been other suicides of St. Patrick’s parishioners spanning generations – some of which I’m certain are a result of abuse and others I’ve always suspected may be related. There have been suicides at Catholic parishes all over Falmouth.
Even as a small child, I could practically hear the whispers about “Father Bill,” as he liked to be called, who tried to come off as “down to earth” and “approachable.” Years later, when I read about Paul Shanley, the notorious “street priest,” who seemed to think he was cool, all I could picture was Baker. My mother and some of the women who taught CCD at St. Patrick’s weren’t falling for his Eddie Haskell facade and expressed their concern to each other about his obvious and unapologetic preoccupation with young girls. She also remembers being in the office at St Patrick’s and hearing him on the telephone “whispering sweet nothings” to someone, without seeming to care if anyone heard. A young priest in his late twenties, carrying on like a lovestruck teenager. One of the more assertive women called the Fall River Diocese, then led by Bishop Daniel Cronin, to register a complaint on behalf of the group, but their observation fell on deaf ears, for parishioners aren’t supposed to question the Church, especially those who are female.
And then just as suddenly as he arrived, Father Bill disappeared one night, with no explanation. When people immediately started asking questions, some of whom were unaware of his predatory ways and therefore devastated by his departure, we were all told Baker had suffered a nervous breakdown, a line now known to be straight from the Catholic playbook. However, my mom recalls asking Father James McCarthy, head of St. Patrick’s at the time, about Baker’s whereabouts and being told swiftly, “Don’t worry. He’s gone and that’s the end of that.”
I know why he left, and exactly what prompted his abrupt and unceremonious exit. It’s why I’m dedicated to investigating the crimes that were committed in my hometown and honoring the lives that have been shattered, both directly and indirectly, by abusive priests and the bishops who enabled them by looking the other way and shuffling them off to another parish. How many more girls did Baker go on to rape? How many did he rape when he was at his first assignment in Attleboro, before coming to Falmouth? I know of at least one.
Then there’s Joseph Maguire, Father Joe, who came to “St. Pat’s” in the early 80s. He’s also listed as being affiliated with the Boy Scouts of Cape Cod, and had a gimmicky thing where he’d invite all the children of the parish up close to the altar to listen to his sermons and likened it to telling them a bedtime story. Something about it and him just didn’t ring true to me, or to the rest of my family, for we were some of the Holden Caulfields of the parish, yet we had every reason to call out phonies. What we somehow suspected might be occurring was actually happening, but no one had words for it back then.
Father Joe was at St. Patrick’s when I had to go on a creepy overnight retreat, a requirement for Confirmation, which I had zero interest in pursuing in the first place, and only did because I thought it was important to my parents. The whole experience was very cult-like, taking us all away from our families, hearing melodramatic stories of redemption from guest speakers, all male, whose qualifications were a mystery, and receiving even more melodramatic letters that family and friends had been instructed to write. Lots of tears for no necessary reason. All of it felt like mind control, and I couldn’t wait to get home.
Monsignor Maurice Souza of St. Anthony’s Parish in East Falmouth abused my friend Dan Sherwood for nearly a decade. After months of off the record meetings with me, Dan asked me to write his story, and we eventually took it to Vatican City, where he shared it with the world through international media during the Pope’s summit in 2019, which was nothing more than another publicity stunt by Francis. Jose Avila and Gilbert Simoes, who went on to work at Falmouth High School, are both pedophiles and rapists, who targeted countless young men, prior to Souza. When recently visiting the grave of my dear friend at St. Anthony’s, I was perplexed and disgusted to discover they are buried with pomp and circumstance in a special clergy plot behind the parish. One of Avila’s victims took his own life, and his son later died in the same manner. Two generations, an entire family, destroyed by the Catholic Church. Avila and Simoes should be exhumed immediately.
There is so much to write on this topic, it has impacted countless lives, in Falmouth and beyond. This is just the beginning of accountability for criminals and healing for survivors. If you’re a victim of clergy sex abuse, please remember, it’s not your fault, and you’re not alone. For resources and outreach, visit SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests). If you’d like to share your experience with me, either on or off the record, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your story will be safe with me, and your wishes will always be respected.