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Spotlight Report

PARISHIONERS

Remarks seen as positive step for church

By Thanassis Cambanis, Globe Staff, 1/10/2002

G reg Czarnowski was heartsick to learn that the Archdiocese of Boston knowingly assigned a priest with a history of sexual abuse to his Weston church's youth ministry.

So Czarnowski, 49, a longtime parishioner at Saint Julia's Parish, where former priest and alleged child molester John Geoghan served in the 1980s, felt a burst of relief when Cardinal Bernard F. Law apologized yesterday for Geoghan's crimes and implemented a new zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse by priests.

''[Law's] acknowledgement is a positive step,'' said Czarnowski from his Weston home after watching Law's comments on television. ''This does mark a change in the church's approach, which is long overdue.''

Still, Czarnowski was deeply troubled that Archdiocese of Boston officials knew Geoghan was a repeat offender but relied on psychiatrists who said he was still fit to work with young people.

''I was profoundly disappointed that the church knew all along what was going on and didn't do anything about it,'' Czarnowski said.

Except for a few months of psychiatric treatment, Geoghan served as a youth minister at St. Julia's from 1984 until he was removed from parish duty in 1993.

''Interestingly enough, aside from his illness, Father Geoghan was a wonderful priest,'' said Czarnowski, whose two daughters had a ''wonderful church experience'' in Geoghan's youth Mass.

Interviews at parishes around the city found that most churchgoers knew about Law's extraordinary press conference, carried live on local television. Many declined to talk on the record; those who did supported the church but wondered why it took so long to act.

Several people emerging from a lunchtime Mass at St. Anthony's Shrine in Downtown Crossing said the church as a whole should not be blamed for the misconduct of individual priests.

Jean Phelan, who describes herself as an active parishioner at Sacred Heart Church in North Quincy, said the archdiocese had made a good-faith effort to remove priests who abused children. If anything, she added, authorities had been misled by psychiatric evaluations suggesting that deep-seated behavior like Geoghan's could be cured.

''The hierarchy is doing the best they can,'' Phelan said.

But she also suggested that the church should have defrocked Geoghan much sooner, and should have moved more quickly to keep abusive priests away from children.

''They should have done this a little bit earlier,'' she said of Law's zero tolerance approach. ''I'm delighted with this new policy. I think it will set people's minds at ease.''

Monsignor William M. Helmick, pastor at Saint Theresa of Avila in West Roxbury, said very few parishioners had talked to him about the Geoghan case.

''People realize the cardinal is doing the best he can,'' said Helmick, who served as Law's secretary for 31/2 years. ''People trust him to be honest, so they were thinking in their hearts and minds that he did not deliberately do something that would put a child in harm's way.''

Patricia Chang, assistant director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, noted that Law's apology may be motivated by more than spiritual catharsis.

Lawsuits from abuse victims have bankrupted many Protestant churches, and other denominations have taken notice, Chang said.

''People are speaking out more because they weren't getting satisfaction within the church,'' Chang said. ''Silence costs so much in terms of lawsuits. That's another reason for zero tolerance.''

Czarnowski, the Weston parishioner, was disappointed that his pastor at Saint Julia's didn't address concerns over the church's role in the Geoghan case at Sunday Mass. Czarnowski said parishioners who have made the Geoghan case their main topic of conversation were relieved yesterday to hear Law finally talking openly about the case, too.

''I didn't understand why it didn't happen sooner, but better late than never,'' Czarnowski said.

Thanassis Cambanis can be reached at tcambanis@globe.com.


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