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Earlier stories

Spotlight Report

Parishes feel effects of priest sex scandal

Some churches see attendance drop

By Michael Paulson and Walter V. Robinson, Globe Staff, 5/26/2002

The view from the altar is quite familiar to the Rev. Thomas J. Buckley. For seven years now he has been celebrating Mass week in and week out at Holy Family Church in Amesbury.

So these days, when he sees the empty seats in the pews and the collection basket passing by, he knows something is amiss. And he's sure the problem is the clergy sexual abuse crisis.

''All this talk about how this isn't affecting attendance is a load of baloney,'' Buckley says. ''On the average weekend we would have about 1,800 people, but we're down about 200 now. And our collection, which was often around $9,500 a week, is now about $1,200 under. I've been here seven years, and I've never seen a blip like this.''

Although there are numerous pastors like Buckley, there are also some who say attendance at Mass and contributions to collection have held steady since the crisis broke in January. But after months in which most Catholics told pollsters they were not changing their observance of faith or their financial practices, priests and archdiocesan officials acknowledge that a significant number of parishes are experiencing a falloff in attendance and a drop in collection receipts.

Interviews with pastors and church officials at more than a dozen parishes spanning the socio-economic spectrum across Eastern Massachusetts suggest that many local Catholics are taking issue, at least temporarily, with an unquestioning form of participation sometimes derided as ''pray, pay and obey.''

''You can tell just by looking at the assembly - you can see it,'' said the Rev. Paul E. Kilroy, pastor of Saint Bernard Church in Newton. ''I've gotten a lot of notes from people saying they're giving to other charities, and they don't want their (collection) envelopes until the cardinal (Bernard F. Law) resigns. I've never seen this in all my years.''

There are no data available to indicate how widespread the decline in Mass attendance or contributions is - the archdiocese conducts its next annual parish survey in October - but archdiocesan officials say that they too are hearing anecdotal evidence that some parishes are hurting as a result of the crisis.

''In some parishes Mass attendance and collection have been affected, and in others they have not,'' said the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, an archdiocesan spokesman. ''It varies so much from parish to parish, it's hard to put your finger on the reasons why some are more affected than others.''

Coyne said the church is concerned about the phenomenon.

''It's always a concern when you see people perhaps walking away from their Catholic faith, because you never want to see that happening,'' Coyne said. ''The response on the local level is very important, with each pastor asking himself what's happening and what he can do to remedy it, and on the archdiocesan level we are continuing to implement programs and to move forward in a proactive manner, rather than in a responsive fashion as had been happening.''

Some pastors have suggested that affluent parishes are hurting more than working-class parishes, and although that seems to be a trend, it is not universally true. Others have suggested that parishes where pastors have talked openly, frequently, and frankly about misconduct by priests have weathered the storm better than parishes where pastors seem uncomfortable with the subject.

''Certainly, the more a priest engages the issue, the less likely parishioners are to be angry, because once you get beyond the incidents of abuse, people have a hard time stomaching the arrogance of the church, so they're concerned if there's no acknowledgment by pastors,'' said Michele M. Dillon, an associate professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire and the author of ''Catholic Identity: Balancing Reason, Faith and Power.''

Dillon said that at her parish, Saint Paul's in Wellesley, she can see more people letting the collection basket go by. But, she said, she does not believe any decline in attendance around the Boston Archdiocese will be permanent.

''People get angry or annoyed and they stop going, but I think eventually many of these people will realize they do want to be Catholic and have their kids raised in the sacraments, and will go back to church,'' she said. ''I am more concerned about the money issue. People have realized the only power they have is not to give, and that's a concern because the church needs the outpouring of donations each week for the upkeep of local churches and to support an awful lot of very good causes.''

The idea of withholding contributions to express concern about church leaders has been gaining steam. A liberal Catholic journal, Commonweal, this month endorsed the idea, writing in an editorial, ''As matters stand, the only real weapon the laity have is cash withdrawal, a powerful and even dangerous weapon - one that should be resheathed when his (Law's) successor arrives and deals honestly and openly with the church of Boston.''

Charles Benson, a 56-year-old software salesman who lives in Arlington, said the scandal made him stop attending Mass and giving money at his parish, St. Jerome's in Arlington. ''There's supposed to be a spiritual dedication to ethical behavior'' in the church, he said. ''But ethics were put aside for pride, fear, and something that might infringe on the good name of the church.''

And Gina Healy, a Eucharistic minister, religious education teacher, and choir member at Saint Agnes Church in Reading, said she and her husband have stopped giving to their parish. ''We feel this is one way that people can have a voice for change,'' she said. ''It has to hurt on the local level. That might have the effect of mobilizing the priests, who are caught between a rock and a hard place, to protest against the cardinal, to insist that the laity have a voice, to say we cannot operate our parishes under these circumstances unless reforms take place.''

But some parishes are reporting increased attendance, even during the crisis.

''Mass attendance is up, and collections are the same or up,'' said the Rev. Robert F. Hennessey, pastor of Most Holy Redeemer Church in East Boston. ''This is a Latino parish, and the Latino community has been very supportive of the cardinal, because he's been very supportive of them. The people who come to church regularly are more supportive than ever, and they're worried about us. People that ordinarily would never talk to you do.''

And the Rev. Paul B. O'Brien, pastor of Saint Patrick Church in Lawrence, said, ''We're booming. Our numbers appear to be growing.'' He credited a number of factors, including the parish's direct approach to clergy sexual abuse.

''We've discussed where people are at with the crisis in scores of ways - we've had many homilies that are almost entirely about the crisis, we've discussed what's going on in the church in all our significant parish groups, with our young people, in religious education classes and in youth groups, and at every Mass we pray for victims as well as for leaders of the church,'' he said. ''People here have the same questions, the same reactions and emotions as everywhere, but I do believe because we've been very open about what's going on, and consistently turning to God, that God has been taking care of us.''

Saint Patrick, like Most Holy Redeemer, is home to a large working-class population, and there is some indication that such parishes have been more resilient during this crisis.

''One of the strengths of working-class faith communities is that people are quite realistic in general, up front about dealing with problems, and there is often a great generosity with forgiveness,'' O'Brien said. ''People are not interested in sweepingly condemning everybody.''

The Rev. Robert F. VerEecke, pastor of Saint Ignatius Loyola Church in Chestnut Hill, also believes socioeconomic factors may play a role. His parish, located on the campus of Boston College and home to an affluent, highly educated community, has suffered some decline in attendance and a clear decline in contributions. The parish bulletin says there has been a 20 percent decline in contributions over the last three months, and warns of ''serious financial problems'' if the trend continues.

''I have received letters and e-mails from parishioners who have told me they have not been coming to church services on Sundays for the past few months because of the present situation, and collections are definitely down,'' he said. VerEecke said that the high education levels in his parish may mean that people are spending a lot of time ''reflecting or thinking about the larger questions'' posed by the crisis, and that those questions are prompting people at least temporarily to stop coming to Mass or giving money.

The picture is mixed even at parishes that had been home to a priest accused of sexual abuse. Contributions at Saint Julia Parish in Weston, where convicted pedophile John J. Geoghan was once assigned, are off substantially, and at All Saints Church in Haverhill, where the Rev. Kelvin E. Iguabita was recently indicted on charges of molesting a 15-year-old girl, contributions are ''a little under average'' and attendance is ''down a wee bit,'' according to the pastor, the Rev. Dennis T. Nason. But attendance and contributions are holding steady at St. Gerard Majella in Canton, where accused child abuser the Rev. Peter Frost was once assigned.

Several pastors who said attendance and collection are holding steady said their parishioners appear to be taking out their anger through the church's $300 million capital campaign or the annual Cardinal's Appeal for the archdiocesan operating budget.

Monsignor George F. Carlson of Holy Name parish in West Roxbury, for example, said pledges to the capital campaign, which his parish launched in January, are far short of expectations. The church has raised just $750,000 toward its $2.2 million goal.

And the Rev. Richard J. Craig, pastor of Saint John the Evangelist Church in North Chelmsford, said he expects the Cardinal's Appeal to suffer.

''My expectation is that it will be heavily hit because of people's antipathy to the cardinal,'' Craig said.

Buckley, the Amesbury pastor, also said fund-raising associated with the cardinal is difficult. ''There's very deep and abiding anger, I would say bordering in some cases of hatred of the cardinal, because of what people perceive as his arrogance,'' he said.

Many pastors have endeavored to shore up their weekly collection by going to great lengths to demonstrate that money given to their parishes will not be used by Cardinal Law, the longtime archbishop of Boston, who has been widely criticized for his failure to remove priests accused of sexually abusing minors from ministry. A majority of Boston-area Catholics have told pollsters they want Law to resign.

One pastor, the Rev. Walter H. Cuenin of Our Lady Help of Christians in Newton, declared in his weekly bulletin that he will not contribute the 1 to 2 percent contributed by all churches to an annual fund for the archdiocese.

''The usual offering that we are asked to give to the cardinal's personal budget, called the cathedraticum, was not sent this year,'' Cuenin wrote. ''I will not send it until this entire situation is resolved. You have my word on that.''

In Reading, the Saint Agnes bulletin includes a detailed breakdown of church fund-raising, and thanks worshipers for ''having `safe-harbored' the financial functioning of your parish from your larger concerns about archdiocesan finances'' and for ''not punishing your parish because of your great disappointment with the lack of humility, contrition and sunlight at the top of the church hierarchy.''

Such statements are in response to concerns expressed by parishioners. The Rev. Michael F. Groden, pastor of St. Cecilia's in Boston's Fenway area, said contributions at his parish are off by as much as one-third, and said that people who continue to give want to be reassured that their money will be used only by the parish.

''Someone will write a check and put in a note that says, `Please promise it will stay here,''' he said.

As a result of notes such as those, numerous parishes have inserted statements into their bulletins distancing the weekly collection, which is used to pay for parish operations, from central church funds.

''We've been very clear about where the money is going - making it clear that the offertory stays here - because I've had a number of questions about that,'' said Monsignor Francis H. Kelley, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Roslindale, where contributions and attendance have held steady. ''The more we talk about stuff and deal with it, the better people seem with it.''

Matt Carroll of the Globe Staff contributed to this article. Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 5/26/2002.
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