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Spotlight Report

Suffolk DA opens investigation of charges against pastor

By Thomas Farragher, Globe Staff, 2/27/2002

A day after a Lowell pastor strongly denied charges that he molested a teenage boy 31 years ago, authorities in Boston opened an investigation into alleged crimes that, they acknowledged, are probably too old to prosecute.

The Rev. D. George Spagnolia, pastor of St. Patrick's Church in Lowell, during an emotional press conference on Monday, had called for a speedy investigation into the charges, saying he is eager to clear his name "so that I can get on with my life."

The Suffolk district attorney's office said it has opened a probe into charges that Spagnolia assaulted a 14-year-old boy in 1971 when the priest was serving as parochial vicar of St. Francis de Sales Church in Roxbury. The alleged attacks occurred in Roxbury and Brighton and Spagnolia's lawyer has said the priest stands accused of two sexual assaults.

The alleged assaults probably fall outside the statute of limitations, but an initial investigation is underway nevertheless.

David A. Procopio, a spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, said the statute of limitations in the case is six years. Prosecutors are seeking Spagnolia's assignment history over the last 31 years to determine whether he was out of state during that time, an absence during which the statute's time limit would be suspended.

But Spagnolia's lawyer said he spent no extended amount of time away from Massachusetts.

Conley's child abuse unit will conduct the investigation. That unit is headed by David Deakin, who prosecuted defrocked priest John J. Geoghan, convicted of molesting a 10-year-old boy and accused of abusing 130 other children.

"We have begun an investigation into the Spagnolia matter," said Procopio. "To assure fairness to both the victim and the alleged perpetrator we will not discuss details of that investigation."

Eileen Donoghue, Spagnolia's lawyer, said her client is grateful for the swift investigation, but she said there has been no decision about whether Spagnolia will agree to be interviewed by authorities. She said if prosecutors are able to clear her client, it would help in his fight with the archdiocese to keep his job.

Wendy Murphy, who represents Spagnolia's alleged victim, said church authorities conducted a thorough investigation before deciding to temporarily remove the priest from his parish.

"This wasn't just a knee-jerk reaction," said Murphy. She added that the alleged victim's statement contained information that a child would not likely know about a priest unless there has been inappropriate contact. She declined to elaborate.

Prosecutors were notified by the archdiocese of the charges against Spagnolia on Friday. As of Monday they had not learned the identity of Spagnolia's accuser.

Spagnolia said the archdiocese supplied the name of his alleged victim when it confronted him with the charges and expressed surprise that church officials have yet to give that name to prosecutors investigating the allegations.

"We have expressed to the archdiocese that we need that information," Procopio said. "It's certainly in the best interest of justice that we have that information as we initiate our review of these allegations." An archdiocesan spokeswoman did not immediately return a phone call yesterday.

Spagnolia is the first of 10 Roman Catholic priests removed by the archdiocese this month on allegations of sexual misconduct who has publicly insisted on his innocence. He has refused to resign as St. Patrick's pastor and said he intends to continue to live in the Lowell rectory.

He has agreed to obey Cardinal Bernard F. Law's command that he not celebrate Mass or administer other church sacraments. The archdiocese said it will continue to pay Spagnolia his $1,400-a-month stipend.

Since his public proclamation of innocence, Spagnolia said he has been inundated with more than 200 telephone calls from supporters. Producers of national television shows, such as CBS's "60 Minutes II," NBC's "Dateline," and ABC's "Good Morning America" are trying to line up interviews.

While the criminal investigation begins, the Archdiocese of Boston is following its own administrative procedures. A review board will be convened to review the charges against Spagnolia.

Law's spokeswoman, Donna M. Morrissey, has said that if Spagnolia is exonerated, the church will reinstate him as pastor and work to repair his reputation.

The archdiocese has said that the cardinal's delegate, the Rev. Charles J. Higgins, met with the alleged victim and Spagnolia, found that there was a "reasonable cause" to believe the allegation, and recommended that Law remove the pastor temporarily.

"I love this," Spagnolia said yesterday, sitting in his kitchen. "They're back-pedaling. They're saying it's only temporary. Well, that's not what I was told by the delegate."

Michael Rosenwald of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Thomas Farragher's e-mail address is farragher@globe.com

This story ran on page B6 of the Boston Globe on 2/27/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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