8 settle Cape clergy sex abuse claims for $880K

Rev. James Nickel, who died in 2008, served in Harwich, Dennis in 1970s and 1980s.

Cape Cod Times/April 10, 2017

By Haven Orecchio-Egresitz

Boston — Eight men who say they were sexually abused by a Cape Cod priest in the 1970s and 1980s have reached an $880,000 settlement with the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts religious order and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fall River.

The men, who were between 10 and 20 years old at the time, say they were abused by the Rev. James Nickel while he was a priest at Holy Trinity Church in West Harwich and Our Lady of the Annunciation Chapel in Dennis Port.

Three of the men, including the son of former Boston Red Sox player Jimmy Piersall, spoke of the settlement and told stories of years of abuse at a press conference in Boston on Monday.

“It screwed up my life for a long time,” one of the victims, Christopher Hopkins, said at the press conference. “I look back and he was a sick person and my anger isn’t with him, it’s with the hierarchy.”

Nickel died in 2008. He was executive director of Damien Ministries, an HIV/AIDS organization in Washington, D.C., at the time of his death.

The abuse took place on the Cape and during trips that Nickel took with the boys to the Bahamas; Illinois; New York; Washington, D.C.; Rhode Island; and New Hampshire, according to their attorney, Mitchell Garabedian, the Boston lawyer who spearheaded the sexual abuse lawsuits against former priest John J. Geoghan and the Boston Archdiocese.

Garabedian said all of the men were abused between 1972 and 1982.

Church leaders, however, were made aware of the accusations of abuse as early as 1972 and continued to allow Nickel to supervise the minor boys, according to Garabedian and a letter referring to accusations dated that year.

In the letter, which Nickel dated Nov. 18, 1972, he denies accusations of “a most serious nature” made by several boys and said he already had spoken to Major Superior Fintan Sheeran about the matter.

Sheeran, Garabedian said, had an obligation to let the public know what was going on.

“Once again cover-up at the highest level of a religious order,” Garabedian said. “There’s no excuse for allowing innocent children’s lives to be destroyed by clergy sexual abuse.”

Hopkins, of Franklin, Tennessee, spent summers on Cape Cod and believes he was targeted by Nickel because his father worked multiple jobs.

“When he came around and started paying attention to me, it was a huge thing for an Irish Catholic family,” Hopkins said.

Christopher Piersall, who lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, said his parents were divorced and Nickel was an occasional dinner guest at the home of his mother, who was very involved in the church.

“He would take me to movies, movies I didn’t want to go to,” Piersall said. “He used to introduce me as a son of a former Red Sox player.”

Nickel took altar boys on two or three trips a year that included amusement parks, Canobie Lake and skiing destinations, Piersall said.

Richard Blakeley, who still lives in Harwich Port, said he was sexually abused by Nickel about 50 times over 2½ years, including at a church retreat house in Buzzards Bay.

“He’d cull you from the herd. He basically ruined you,” Blakeley said. “Once he was gone from my life I turned it around, I finished school.”

Garabedian has settled 10 sexual abuse cases involving Nickel, and another man recently came forward and is still deciding whether to pursue a case, the attorney said Monday. The eight men involved in this settlement filed claims about three years ago but never brought a lawsuit, he said.

“From my experience, there are hundreds of victims of any pedophile priest,” Garabedian said. “Especially where there was a cover-up.”

Robert M. Hoatson, president of Road to Recovery Inc., also attended the press conference. The organization has provided assistance to the survivors and their families.

The Congregation of the Sacred Hearts in Fairhaven and the Diocese of Fall River did not respond to requests for comment.

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