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Spotlight Report

Lowell priest quietly removed

By Matt Carroll, Globe Staff, 2/23/2002


Father D. George Spagnolia, 1971 (Globe Staff File Photo / Joseph Dennehy)
On Wednesday, when the Boston Archdiocese announced the ouster of an Abington pastor, the Rev. Joseph L. Welsh, the church also removed the pastor of St. Patrick's Church in Lowell without any public disclosure. The church acknowledged the removal of the Rev. D. George Spagnolia, also because of allegations that he sexually abused a child, only after the Globe learned about the move yesterday afternoon.

The archdiocese defended its decision to withhold information about Spagnolia, saying that it first wanted to inform his parishioners at weekend Masses starting today, archdiocesan spokeswoman Donna M. Morrissey said in a statement last night.

Morrissey said the allegation of sex with a minor against Spagnolia was more than 20 years old, but that he was removed "in accordance with our zero tolerance policy."

Peter Ros, the deacon of St. Patrick's, said yesterday that Spagnolia had denied the allegation in a conversation the two had on Wednesday. Spagnolia could not be reached yesterday.

Spagnolia's departure brings to 10 the number of priests who have been removed from service this month after the archdiocese discovered allegations of sexual abuse against them.

Four of the 10 were pastors, in Quincy, Randolph, Abington, and now Lowell.

Last night's announcement brings a bizarre end to a priestly career that was strange in itself: Spagnolia in 1973 took a 20-year leave of absence from the priesthood that began not long after he held a publicized fast outside the Chancery to demand church funding to build a parochial school. In the several years just before his return, Spagnolia owned and operated a historic inn in Yarmouthport.

Ernest Corrigan, a Boston public relations consultant recently retained by the archdiocese, said Welsh's dismissal was announced on Wednesday and Spagnolia's kept secret only because the Globe had already reported on Wednesday morning that there were allegations of sexual misconduct against Welsh. Those accusations included one case in which he allegedly molested three boys in a family that had befriended him. The archdiocese had received a separate allegation about Welsh.

In one of several regional meetings he has held with priests to discuss the issue, Cardinal Bernard F. Law said this week that seven of the first eight priests he removed this month admitted that they were guilty of the molestation. He did not identify the eighth by name, according to an official who attended the meeting.

The ousters, and the way they have been handled, have caused the archdiocese needless damage, in the view of public relations professionals, after Law insisted several times in January that there were no priests in any positions who had been accused of molesting children.

Karen Schwartzman, who specializes in public relations for clients with problems, said last night that the cardinal can't afford to increase public doubt about his credibility in the midst of the clergy sex abuse scandal. "Any delay in letting the public know the extent of the problem and the steps he is taking only adds to the distrust," she said.

Despite Morrissey's insistence that Spagnolia's parishioners should have been the first to know of his departure, her office announced the removal of six priests on Thursday, Feb. 7 without any of the same announcements: Three of those priests were serving in parishes, though none were permanently assigned.

Spagnolia's departure is all the more curious because of the career that preceded it. He was ordained in 1964, but in the early 1970s, he took a 20-year leave from active ministry, for reasons that were unknown last night.

In 1971, Spagnolia ended a fast and prayer vigil outside the residence of Cardinal Humberto S. Medeiros after winning assurances that the archdiocese would build a parochial grade school at the old St. Francis de Sales Church in Roxbury.

Spagnolia, who said he was prepared to continue the vigil indefinitely, spent three days and two nights in a tent pitched near the entrace of the Cardinal's residence, accompanied by two teenage altar boys from the church.

For several years near the end of his leave, Spagnolia owned the Yarmouthport Inn. The small establishment, which was originally built as a sea captain's house, was foreclosed in 1992, according to real estate records.

In 1993, he returned to priestly duties. Now 64, Spagnolia has been pastor of the Lowell parish since 1998.

The extent of the church's evidence about his alleged abuse of a minor could not be determined. Morrissey's statement did not say whether the church was satisfied that it had occurred.

Ros, the deacon at St. Patrick's, said yesterday that he learned from the pastor hours after his removal that he had been accused of molesting a 13- or 14-year-old boy 35 years ago.

Ros said he spoke at the rectory for 20 minutes on Wednesday with a shaken Spagnolia, after the pastor returned from his meeting at the chancery.

"His face was very red," as if he was about to cry, said Ros. "He said it wasn't true and I believe him. He asked me to pray for him."

In addition to being removed from active ministry, Ros said, Spagnolia will not be able to say a public Mass. He can say a Mass only for himself and his family.

After resuming parish work in 1993, Spagnolia served briefly at St. Edward the Confessor in Medfield. At St. Mary's in Franklin, where he was assigned from 1994 to 1997, Spagnolia, who was known by many parishioners as Father Spag, was involved in several community-building programs.

He started a Catholic information center called the Olive Branch, run by volunteers from a storefront on Main Street in downtown Franklin. And after finding racist graffiti targeted at the church and the center, he proposed that the town's Interfaith Council create a social justice committee.

Matt Carroll's e-mail address is mcarroll@globe.com.

Globe staff reporters Michael Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer, and Walter V. Robinson contributed to this report.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 2/23/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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