Three Cheverus High School alumni have launched what they call “an important and overdue project” to create a fund for former students who were sexually abused during their time at the Jesuit-run school in Portland.

John Marr Jr., Pete O’Donnell and Chris O’Neil, all from the Class of 1979, wrote a letter to classmates recently announcing the fund and soliciting donations. They hope to raise $50,000 and said an anonymous donor would match contributions up to $25,000.

The fund will be used to provide professional counseling and therapy to any victims, and for educational and training programs for current students, faculty and staff.

“As Cheverus brothers we support the abuse victims who have come forward and those who have not. In either case, many victims – often because of cost – have gone without the support so crucial for them to cope, recover and thrive,” the alumni wrote.

Although the fund was not meant to be announced publicly, another Cheverus alumnus, Michael Sweatt, a member of the Class of 1976 who is an abuse victim, released the letter through the organization Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

Sweatt, in a reply letter to the Class of 1979, said that while the fundraising effort was noteworthy, he had additional recommendations for how the money could be used. He also levied criticism at current Cheverus leaders who he says have refused to meet with him.

“It’s hard to criticize these three individuals for stepping up and doing something,” Sweatt said Tuesday. “But it’s still not holding the school or the Jesuits accountable for years of cover-up and mistreating victims.”

Sweatt said the most effective thing Cheverus and/or its alumni could do would be to support legislation that would allow victims who are currently barred by statutes of limitation from coming forward to seek justice in a courtroom.

Chris O’Neil 

The three Class of 1979 members, like many Cheverus alumni, are all prominent members of the greater Portland community. Marr is the executive chairman of the board, and former longtime CEO, of Tyler Technologies Inc., O’Donnell is a former Portland mayor, and O’Neil is a well-known lobbyist and consultant.

O’Neil said in an email Tuesday that the group had not planned on publicizing their effort, but said the response so far from classmates has been tremendous.

“There is so much good that can be done for abuse survivors,” he said, “and this is our small contribution.”

Neither Marr nor O’Donnell returned calls or emails on Tuesday.

Cheverus, in a statement from its president, Father Robert Pecoraro, said it supports the Class of 1979’s efforts and said the school has been providing funds to victims and survivors since 2000.

“The establishment of the fund by the group of alumni from the Class of 1979 supports our effort to help with the healing process for the victims/survivors through therapy and counseling,” Pecoraro said, adding that the school has instituted a number of safeguards to protect against abuse. He called the abuse scandal “a difficult part of our history,” and encouraged any victim of a Cheverus employee, past or present, to contact the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office.

John Marr Jr.

Sweatt said Pecoraro’s words are hollow to him.

The school, founded in 1917, enrolls 400 students every year and, since 2000, has been co-educational.

Since the 1990s, Cheverus has been forced to reckon with allegations of sexual abuse by staff members.

Former track coach Charlie Malia, who was not a priest, was accused of abuse by a dozen victims beginning in 1997, and was quietly let go. Malia later acknowledged to a Press Herald reporter in 2000 that he had “some guilt,” but he was never charged because Maine had a short statute of limitations at the time.

Another Cheverus teacher, James Talbot, who also served as a priest in local parishes, was outed around the same time by a victim and was fired from the school in 1998.

It was later learned that Talbot abused many more victims – the exact number is not known – both at Cheverus and at Boston College High School, where he taught from 1972-1980 before arriving at Cheverus. By 2003, at least 14 men had settled civil lawsuits against Talbot totaling $5.2 million.

Peter O’Donnell 

Talbot was later charged with sexually assaulting two students in Boston and served six years in prison.

Two years ago, Talbot was charged after a victim in Maine came forward who said Talbot assaulted him while he was serving as a priest at St. Jude Church in Freeport. Talbot, now 80, was sentenced a year ago to 10 years in prison with all but three suspended.

Victims of Malia have long sought compensation from Cheverus, but the school has rejected those efforts. In 2011, at the urging of Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian, the school entertained discussions about possible compensation with victims, only to walk away. John Clark, a Malia victim, told the Press Herald two years ago that it was “like being invited to a dinner table with no meal served.”

Melissa Hewey, the school’s attorney, said that there simply wasn’t enough money to offer settlements and that Cheverus’ insurance policy wouldn’t cover it.

Victim compensation funds are increasingly being established in Catholic dioceses across the country, although Maine’s diocese has not done so.

Although Cheverus is a Catholic school, it’s run by the Jesuits and the local diocese has no oversight.

In addition to Malia and Talbot, six others who served at Cheverus were included in a list of 50 credibly accused priests released in January by the USA Northeast Province of Jesuits. The others are: William Cahill, (1950-1960); Stephen Dawber, (1978-1984); Joseph Dooley (1954-1958); Eugene Orteneau (1978-1979); Richard Roos (1974-1980); and James Walsh (1970-72 and 1977-1979).

However, only in Cahill’s case did the allegations involve Cheverus students.

All but two of the priests named were at Cheverus while the Class of 1979 attended.

“We attended Cheverus at a time when several abusers were employed by the school,” the letter from the trio reads. “Over the last three decades we have watched the chapters of this tragic story unfold, and it has pained us on so many levels.

“First, our hearts break for the victims, our Cheverus brothers. Second, the scandal has tested our faith in institutions: Cheverus, the Jesuits and the Church. Third, we deeply value our Cheverus experience, so we wince whenever a new media event rehashes old stories about our alma mater in that dreadful context.”

For Sweatt, every time he hears fellow Cheverus alumni talk about the connection they feel to the school and to those who shared the experience, all he can think about is that he’s never had that.

“I was robbed of that brotherhood, as were dozens of others,” he said.

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