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In wake of abuse cases, clergy endure in faith

By Brian McGrory, Globe Staff, 7/5/1992

 In-depth
In 1992, the Rev. James R. Porter case in Fall River brought the problem of clergy abuse into the open.  
Coverage of the Porter case
he cavalcade of publicity over priests who have been accused of or have admitted to molesting children has created an awkward frustration within the hushed rectories around Greater Boston, leaving Catholic clergy in the unusual position of defending their character and their church.

In Revere, Rev. William L. Butler, the pastor of St. Mary of the Assumption Church, said parishioners may be looking at him differently now. Rev. William P. Fay, the dean of St. John's Seminary in Brighton, cried as he watched a television report Thursday detailing some of the allegations. And at St. Ann's in Quincy, churchgoers continually ask Rev. Jack Ahearn if he knew one of the priests involved.

"I don't remember in all these years I have seen anything as negative as this," said Rev. Al Puccini, the pastor of St. Peter's Church in Malden. "But we'll go ahead. We have to be upbeat. Priesthood for me is everything. I have been happiest when I am serving people. And I really believe we have a wonderful group of men."

Now, during one of the darkest times in the recent history of the local church, priests are looking to one another and their parishioners for help. Ultimately, they are also looking inward, to their own beliefs and their own character, and intensifying their efforts in the community as they wait for this day to pass.

"We step back and reflect on what the priesthood is, who the priest should be, and the implications of it all," said Rev. Thomas McDonald, the pastor of St. Augustine's in South Boston.

CORRECTION: Wednesday, July 8, 1992, Because of a reporting error, a story in Sunday's Metro/Region section misspelled the name of Father Thomas McDonnell, the pastor of St. Augustine's Church in South Boston.

"It redoubles your efforts for holiness,"said Father McDonald. "To be effective, you have to strive to have this come about in your life. It is a spiritual thing. I don't see it as psychologically draining for me. I am busy."

What bothers many priests amid this rash of media coverage and public scrutiny is the great amount of good going virtually unnoticed: no attention to the food pantries, the work with the homeless, the successful teen-ager and elderly programs that represent the routine, daily work of most Catholic churches.

Instead, the talk and coverage has been of James R. Porter, a former Catholic priest who allegedly molested dozens of children and young people in the 1960s when he served in parishes in southeastern Massachusetts; Rev. Richard Lavigne of Shelburne Falls, who pleaded guilty to two counts of indecent assault and battery late last month; and Rev. John R. Hanlon, who was indicted last month on charges of raping and assaulting an altar boy at St. Mary's Church in North Plymouth between 1980 and 1982.

To buoy their spirits, Cardinal Bernard F. Law sent a letter to parish priests last week encouraging them to maintain their faith in themselves, and recalling the good work that they have done. By most accounts, the letter was a success. But still, as priests face the world outside, they cannot help but be startled by some of the scrutiny.

"This is a downer," said Father Butler. "It makes you feel as though everyone is looking at you . . . and wondering, is this guy doing something he shouldn't be doing? Many of my brethren priests feel the same way."

Like others, Butler is addressing the issue head on, from the altar at morning Mass, talking with his parishioners about the changing, difficult times of the church.

"I'm not afraid to have informtion revealed," he said. "It is cathartic."

Fathers Puccini and McDonald are praying for the victims and the accused, as they continue to go about their work and wait for the storm clouds to break. The church has persevered through difficulty for centuries, they said, and will this time as well.

"We are going through this difficult period, but the church has always gone through hard times," said Father Puccini. "We are sad for the people involved, but we pray for them, of course we do."

Said Father McDonald, "I always said that the church is the body of Christ, and that as the body of Christ was bloodied and bruised on the cross, we should expect that the church will be bloody and bruised. But that is OK. We have to continue on."

Rev. Charles McGahey, the pastor of St. Andrew's in Forest Hills, said he is pushing onward, with the hope that his parishioners will remember his work in the past and recognize his ability to continue to lead.

"Everyone is looking at me as a man of God," he said. "To combat this, I just try to do what I have always done. I try to be of service to the people of St. Andrew's parish. We try to be of service to those we meet. It is my hope and prayer that people see Christ in me."

Some priests are following the early signals of Cardinal Law, who in May blasted the media coverage of Porter and called down "God's power on the media, particularly the Globe."

After criticism from those who said they had been abused, the cardinal appeared to soften his stance and decried any abuse by priests, calling for compassion for victims and their families. He has since said that the Archdiocese of Boston is reviewing priest personnel records for signs of problems of sexual abuse -- a move welcomed by some clergy as a much-needed aggressive step but deplored by others as perpetuating the perception of a problem.

Some priests maintain that at least part of the church's problem is the fault of the news media, which they said became obsessed with the story.

"You get the feeling sometimes that the media is out to get the priests, and that bothers me," said Father Butler.

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 7/5/1992.
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