Hand of God [site home page]
  • Home
  • Updates
  • Timeline
  • Discussion
  • timeline

A Cultrera family history and a chronology of the Boston abuse scandal.


Cardinal William O'Connell grants "parish" status to the "Italian Mission" of Salem, Mass. Parishioners begin raising donations to build a church of their own.

Nov. 26, 1925

Paul Cultrera in St. Mary's

Paul Cultrera Sr. in St. Mary's

The resulting church building, St. Mary's Italian, is dedicated.

Jan. 7, 1945

Paul Cultrera and Josephine Giunta are married in St. Mary's Italian.

Feb. 4, 1947

Maria, the eldest Cultrera child, is born.

July 5, 1949

Paul Cultrera

Paul Cultrera is born.

Nov. 27, 1958

Joe Cultrera

Joe Cultrera is born.


Paul attends St. James, the Irish Catholic elementary school in Salem, Mass.


John McCormack and Joseph Birmingham graduate from St. John's Seminary in Brighton, Mass.


McCormack is assigned to St. James in Salem.



Birmingham is assigned to Our Lady of Fatima in Sudbury. Not long after, allegations of sexual abuse of young boys begin to surface.

In November 1964, after a meeting with the families of two boys in Sudbury who claimed Birmingham abused them, Birmingham is transferred to St. James in Salem.


Paul attends St. John's Preparatory School, a Catholic high school in Danvers, Mass.


St. James Rectory

At St. James, Birmingham is put in charge of the altar boys, including Paul Cultrera. Over several months in the spring and summer of 1964, Paul is molested by Fr. Birmingham at St. James Rectory, in Birmingham's car and on road trips to Cape Cod and New Hampshire.


Paul attends Boston College, where he begins to drift away from the church. In 1970, he decides to apply for conscientious objector status regarding the Vietnam War. Because the claim must be made on religious grounds, he must go to Birmingham for a signature on the papers. It is the last time Paul sees Birmingham.


McCormack is assigned to Catholic Charities, part of the central administration of the Archdiocese of Boston. In 1969, he takes time off to pursue a Master's in Social Work at Boston College.


Birmingham is assigned to St. Michael's in Lowell.


Paul working odd jobs

Paul at work during the 1970s.

After graduating from Boston College, Paul works a series of odd jobs. During this time he travels to Italy to find his grandfather's grave. He settles in Gloucester in 1976.


Joe Cultrera, Paul's brother, graduates from high school and begins making films.


Joe studies film at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. His senior thesis is based on Fr. Anthony Laurano, the new and widely disliked pastor at St. Mary's in Salem.


Birmingham is assigned to St. Columbkille's in Brighton.


Paul and Hartley

Paul meets Hartley Ferguson at Gloucester's St. Peter's Feast; later that year the couple moves in together.


Paul and Hartley are married.


Fr Anthony Laurano

Fr. Anthony Laurano

Joe, filming a social event, interviews Fr. Anthony Laurano, who calls himself a "man set apart" from his parishioners. "And when you are a man set apart," he tells Joe, "you have to watch out for them."


McCormack, Birmingham and other seminary classmates vacation in Italy and France to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their ordination. McCormack is named secretary of ministerial personnel, a position that gives him a say in the assignments of priests, including Birmingham.

That same year, Birmingham is made pastor of St. Ann's in Gloucester, not far from where Paul and Hartley live. Dr. Phillip Quinn, a psychiatrist who examined Birmingham in 1964 when early allegations of molestation surfaced, examines Birmingham again and writes that he sees "no reason why he could not be made a pastor."

Feb.-March 1987

A boy who works in the rectory at St. Ann's accuses Birmingham of sexual abuse. Birmingham offers to resign and seek therapy. He is sent to the Institute of the Living, a mental health facility specializing in behavioral disorders. The institute sends a March 25 report on Birmingham's progress directly to McCormack.

April 1987

A parishioner and mother of an altar boy at St. Ann's writes to Cardinal Bernard Law, asking if her pastor is the same Fr. Birmingham rumored to have molested boys at St. James in Salem years earlier. McCormack pens the response: "I contacted Father Birmingham. ... He assured me there is absolutely no factual basis to your concern regarding your son and him. From my knowledge of Father Birmingham and my relationship with him, I feel he would tell me the truth and I believe he is speaking the truth in this matter."


Birmingham is assigned to St. Brigid's in Lexington.


Fr Birmingham

Birmingham dies on April 19, aged 55. (For more on Birmingham's career, see this timeline compiled by BishopAccountability.org.)

That same year, McCormack is promoted to director of ministerial personnel.


Paul and Hartley break up; Paul drives cross-country to take a consulting job in Southern California.


Joe Cultrera begins making fundraising videos for the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J. He will continue to do so through 1994.


On a visit back to Massachusetts, Paul tells Hartley about being abused by Birmingham. Later that year he also tells his girlfriend, Lee Clinton.

In October, a Boston Globe reporter contacts Sr. Grace Kenning, who worked at St. James School in the 1960s, about rumors of sexual abuse by Birmingham. McCormack's office advises Kenning not to notify the current pastor of St. James nor to check the school records and to refer any other inquires to McCormack.




Paul tells his brother Joe about his abuse by Birmingham. Also that year, Paul, encouraged by Lee, files a complaint with the archdiocese's office of ministerial personnel, now headed by McCormack, seeking money for therapy. According to Paul, McCormack tells him he had not had contact with Birmingham since their days at St. James in Salem.

Later that year, according to Paul, McCormack says he visited Birmingham in the hospital and attended his funeral. Paul decides to seek damages from the church. Hoping to prove the archdiocese was negligent in assigning Birmingham to St. James, Paul, with help from Joe, Lee and her family, places an ad in local newspapers where Birmingham had been assigned, asking, "Do you remember Fr. Birmingham?"


In January, after his parents' 50th wedding anniversary, Paul tells them about his abuse. Drawing on the letters they received in response to the ad and their own research, Paul and lawyer Matt McNamara draft a demand letter to the archdiocese. At Paul's insistence, McCormack attends the settlement negotiations. The parties settle for $60,000. Paul, describing himself as drained and disgusted by the process, decides not to go public with his abuse.

Not long after the settlement, McCormack is named an auxillary bishop of Boston.


In July, Pope John Paul II appoints McCormack bishop of the Diocese of Manchester, N.H. He is installed to the post in September.

Jan. 2002

Boston Globe Headline

The Boston Globe publishes the first in an award-winning series of articles on the diocese's widespread clergy abuse scandal. This first story is on how the archdiocese shuttled Fr. John Geoghan from parish to parish despite knowing of and settling more than 100 claims of abuse against him. Over the following months, the Globe reports on abuse by other priests, including Birmingham. It also reports on civil lawsuits alleging McCormack's role in the archdiocese's cover-up of the abuse.

Summer 2002

Starting in May and running through August, Cardinal Law is deposed several times by attorneys representing abuse victims. Bishop McCormack is deposed twice.

Sept. 9, 2002

The archdiocese agrees to a $10 million settlement with 86 victims of John Geoghan. Church officials had rejected an earlier agreement that would have cost up to $30 million on the grounds that it would have bankrupted the archdiocese.

Dec. 13 2002

After months of depositions, meetings with victims and public apologies, Law travels to Rome to tender his resignation to Pope John Paul II. Bishop Richard Lennon is named apostolic administrator of the archdiocese on an interim basis.

Jan. 2003

The last Mass

The archdiocese closes the Cultreras' home parish, St. Mary's Italian. Joe films the last Mass there as part of a short film he makes as a gift to the community.

Also in January, McCormack meets with Birmingham survivors in Salem, including Paul, who reads to McCormack a statement. (Read the statement in the "Documents" section of this site.) His brother Joe is not allowed to film the meeting but he is able to film McCormack as he leaves.

July 2003

Bishop Sean O'Malley is installed as archbishop of Boston. In the 1990s, O'Malley, then bishop of Fall River, Mass., oversaw the settlement of cases stemming from abuse committed by Fr. James Porter. One of his first acts as Boston archbishop is to bring in an expert to help settle the lawsuits filed by sexual abuse victims.

Sept. 9, 2003

The Archdiocese of Boston reaches an $84.1 million settlement with 541 abuse victims, including many victims of Fr. Birmingham.

May 19, 2004

Bishop Lennon

Filming exterior shots of the archdiocese chancery building, Joe and his film crew are told to stop by an unidentified priest. Afterwards they realize the priest was Bishop Richard Lennon, who had taken over for Cardinal Law.

May 27, 2004

Cardinal Law is appointed archpriest of St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome, a church often used by the Pope to celebrate Mass.

Aug. 2004

Cardinal Law

Paul Cultrera, Sr., turns 90. Aunt Kay and the younger Paul remove the picture of Cardinal Law from the wall at the family home.

April 27, 2005

Fr. Anthony Laurano

Fr. Anthony Laurano, the pastor of St. Mary's whom Joe Cultrera interviewed on film in 1983, is arraigned on charges of raping an 8-year-old boy in 1991. A year later he is charged with abusing his 30-year-old mentally disabled neighbor. Laurano has pled not guilty to all the charges. Update, Feb. 7, 2008: On May 27, 2007, Laurano died at home of natural causes, before he could stand trial.

Feb 17, 2006

Aunt Kay dies at the age of 100.

May 15, 2006

Bishop Richard Lennon is installed as head of the Diocese of Cleveland, Ohio.

home | introduction | watch online | conversation with the producers | updates | timeline
documents | producer chat | readings & links | dvd/vhs & transcript
site map | press reaction | credits | privacy policy | journalistic guidelines
FRONTLINE series home | wgbh | pbs

posted jan. 16, 2007

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
background photos copyright © joe cultrera
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation