WEST HARWICH — A long shadow of sexual abuse came to light this week with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fall River settling eight sexual abuse cases against the late Rev. James Nickel, who served as a priest in Holy Trinity Church from 1972 to 1978.
Seven of the eight boys sexually abused by Nickel were alter boys. Six of them served in Holy Trinity Church and one at Our Lady of Annunciation in Dennisport. The other child was abused by Nickel on a trip to Abaco Island, Bahamas, said attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who represented the eight victims.
A press release issued by Garabedian stated the Congregation of Sacred Hearts and the Diocese of Fall River recently found all of the men's accounts of having been sexually abused as children credible, and settled the eight cases for $880,000.
Garabedian said the sexual abuses took place between 1973 and 1983 and occurred in West Harwich, Marsh Harbour, Abaco Island, Illinois, New York, Washington, D.C., Rhode Island and New Hampshire. Garabedian said Nickel received the permission of parents to take trips with the boys to baseball games, amusement parks and to visit his family.
“The victims were 10 to 20 years old and many were abused for years,” Garabedian said. “Nickel became a trusted friend with the families, which were usually dysfunctional, and then he abused the child. He'd tell the victims to keep it a secret and they did based on him being a priest.”
Garabedian said the $880,000 settlement was reached with the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts and the Fall River Diocese. He said he is presently investigating one additional claim from the Holy Trinity Parish.
Of the eight victims, Garabedian said three were willing to participate in a press conference held on Monday in Boston. They are Chris Piersall, son of famous Red Sox center fielder Jimmy Piersall; Chris Hopkins, who now lives in Tennessee; and Rick Blakeley of Harwich Port. The other victims chose to remain anonymous at this time.
Blakely declined to comment through an intermediary.
“They should be proud of themselves for coming forward and exposing this for other victims and to make the world safer for other children,” Garabedian told The Chronicle.
“Where were the supervisors and why were they not protecting these innocent children?” Garabedian said of church leaders. “Why didn't the Bishop of Fall River protect these innocent children by notifying adults that Father Nickel was a serious problem?”
Garabedian said the church received notice there were problems with Nickel before the sexual abuses took place. Nickel sent a letter on Nov. 18, 1972 stating, “I wish to categorically deny these accusations.”
“I can not comprehend how the boys could say such things. I feel that these accusations are of a most serious nature, and I am concerned…I have spoken with my Major Superior, Fr. Fintan Sheeran, regarding this matter. If you would like we could arrange a meeting with the boys to discuss it. I only wish that this could be handled in such a manner that no one would be hurt.”
Garabedian cited the letter as proof the Fall River Diocese knew about the situation before these sexual abuses occurred. A priest needs the permission of the Bishop of Fall River Diocese to serve in this diocese, he added. Garabedian said he has settled two other cases of sexual abuse, in 1983 and 1984, one on the Cape and one in Fairhaven, when now-Cardinal Sean O'Malley was the Bishop of Fall River Diocese.
Robert Hoatson, president of Road to Recovery, Inc, a service based in New Jersey which provides assistance to people who are victims of sexual abuse, said he is working with the victims and encouraging them to seek therapy and assisting them on the road to recovery.
Nickel served for several years as director of administration and pastoral care at Damien Ministries, an HIV/AIDS organization in Washington, D.C. starting in 1999. He passed away on Jan. 20, 2008.