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Law's words frame new play

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Spotlight Report

  At St. Gerard Majella Church, worshipers gather at an outdoor Mass. Shaken by scandal, they find strength in their own church. (Globe Staff Photo / Suzanne Kreiter)
More photos of St. Gerard's

PARISH AT THE CROSSROADS

Faith. Hope. Rage. Resolve.

Reacting to the church abuse crisis, members of one parish are pulling together

By Don Aucoin and Bella English, Globe Staff, 7/16/2002

Part 1 of 3

 The series
Priests have been charged, bishops pressured to resign. But the enduring impact of the clergy sex-abuse scandal may be in the pews, where many parishioners are demanding a fundamental power shift from church leaders to the laity. With the lay empowerment group Voice of the Faithful convening in Boston Saturday, the Globe visits one suburban parish, St. Gerard Majella in Canton, where the revolution is underway.


Part one: The people
How the scandal changed just about everything at St. Gerard's.
Part two: The pastor
They call him father Mac, and most think his openness has kept the parish together.
Part three: The next generation
How the youth of St. Gerard's are responding to the scandal.
Follow-up: The healing begins
Five months after the original series, another visit to St. Gerard's.


Globe Staff Graphic

 St. Gerard's by the numbers
Sunday Mass attendance and collections have remained steady since the clergy scandal broke, according to parish officials.


Parishioners at Sunday Mass
about 1,400
Weekly contributions
about $8,500
Religious-education students
675
Senior CYO members
about 60
Junior CYO members
about 75

Source: Parish officials

 Photo gallery
Portraits of St. Gerard Majella

 Message board
How has your parish responded?
Boston.com readers comment on this series and discuss how the scandal has affected their parishes.

 Chat
Transcript of Don Aucoin chat
On July 17, the Globe's Don Aucoin, co-author of the St. Gerard series, talked with Boston.com readers about the Canton parish and the priest sexual abuse scandal.

CANTON - When Greg Pando was a young US Army corporal stationed near Saigon in the winter of 1968, a time and a place where bright spots were rare, he eagerly looked forward to the Sundays when a Catholic priest would arrive to celebrate Mass at a makeshift field chapel.

Pando now does his praying at St. Gerard Majella Church, a tight-knit and dynamic parish here that draws as many as 1,400 people to Mass each week. He still looks forward to Sundays, still draws strength and solace from the communal expression of his faith. But after the eruption of a priest sex-abuse crisis that has posed a historic test of that faith for Catholics, Pando has had enough of the old ways. He is resolved to be part of a new wave of grass-roots Catholicism that challenges the church hierarchy. The way he sees it, returning power to the pews is the only way to restore the church's credibility and vitality.

''The box is opened,'' says Pando, 55, an architect who serves as vice chairman of the finance committee at St. Gerard's. ''They've woken a sleeping giant. And the sleeping giant is empowerment, that bottom-up pressure that is going to change the concept of `princes of the church.'''

A laity enraged, then energized: That may be the lasting legacy of a year dominated by stories about priests-turned-predators and the equally staggering revelation that some bishops knew but did not act.

The parishioners at St. Gerard's appear to reflect a burgeoning belief among lay people that the future of the Catholic Church rests squarely in their hands. Their relationship to the archdiocese has been strained almost to the breaking point, but their relationship to their own parish - and their own pastor - has

been strengthened. That apparent paradox may define the Catholic Church at this strange moment in time.

It is not yet clear what kinds of changes rank-and-file Catholics will be able to achieve, although a blueprint for reform may emerge from Saturday's meeting in Boston of the lay group known as Voice of the Faithful, a gathering expected to draw between 4,000 and 5,000 people from around the country.

But hints of Catholicism's possible new shape can already be discerned in the voices of the faithful - angry, shaken, devout, confused, determined - at St. Gerard's. As the portraits that follow show, parishioners are asking a question that is both local and universal: Where do we go from here?

'We are suffering'

Maureen Foley wore a ribbon of deep purple as she stood in the St. Gerard's parking lot one day last month and spoke to - and for - dozens of parishioners gathered for a prayer vigil. It was no ordinary vigil: It was dedicated to victims of sex abuse by priests, including those allegedly molested by a former priest at St. Gerard's.

''We are suffering and have been deeply affected by the crisis of abuse and betrayal in our church,'' she said. ''These ashes are symbols of our sorrow for those abused, who have been forced to carry undeserved shame for too long.'' Shortly afterward, parishioners moved beyond symbolism to action as they sat inside the church to pen individual letters of sympathy to victims.

As with many other Boston-area Catholics, parishioners at St. Gerard's got their first glimpse into the inner workings of the Archdiocese of Boston through its handling of the sex-abuse crisis. Many found it a harrowing sight, and many have lost confidence in Cardinal Bernard Law. ''If he ever came down here, he'd be booed out of the place,'' says parishioner Jim Andersen.

From outward appearances, St. Gerard's might seem an unlikely venue for such anger and turbulent soul-searching. The brick church presents a tranquil face to the busy thoroughfare on which it sits. Many members are middle-aged or older. Parishioners are mostly white and middle-class, though there are some very wealthy members and some who are unemployed.

But when the church scandal broke, St. Gerard's sprang into action. Parishioners raised $8,000 to place a ''letter to survivors'' in The Patriot Ledger, the South Shore newspaper. Lay groups organized, with momentum building toward forming a Voice of the Faithful chapter. Listening sessions were held. Therapists were called in. A series of speakers on spiritual themes was launched. As summer unfolded, Foley and others organized a prayer vigil for victims. Through it all, the Rev. Bernard McLaughlin, the pastor at St. Gerard's, has proven willing to both lead and follow.

The healing has started, but a lot of pain remains.

An excruciating exchange

Bob Bibeau's mother was embarrassed, but she had to ask. Hers was the question for Catholic parents.

''Did any priest ever touch you?''

In all of Bibeau's 48 years, this ranked as one of the more awkward conversations he'd ever had with his mother. But he had been an altar boy when he was young, and so she wondered. No, Bibeau told her, he had not been molested. She had a follow-up: ''What about your brother?'' Another no.

It is the kind of exchange that captures the anxiety of many Catholics these days. As parents like Bibeau's find themselves forced to ask such things of their children, they also privately question themselves: Did I do enough to protect my child? It is a new and disquieting way of thinking about the past. Meanwhile, their children, like Bibeau, the chief financial officer of a construction company, are struggling to reconcile the revelations with the church in which they were brought up. The onus is on them to decide what kinds of changes will keep them in the church.

''It was hard for me to understand - having been raised a Catholic, being an altar boy, spending a year at a Catholic college - to start to hear this, I was horrified,'' says Bibeau, adding, ''It's almost something like `Animal House.'''

The meeting of US bishops in Dallas last month did not mollify him. In Bibeau's view, the bishops exempted themselves from accountability when they adopted new national guidelines on clergy sex abuse. ''If anything, Dallas raised even more issues with upper management,'' he says, referring to the bishops. Like many other Catholics who used to proudly write checks for the annual Cardinal's Appeal, Bibeau has held off on giving this year. He will wait, he says, till he is ''satisfied that they're doing the right thing in Boston,'' which in his mind must include Cardinal Law's resignation. An accountant by training, he is skeptical of the archdiocese's claim that none of the contributions to the Cardinal's Appeal will be used for legal settlements with victims.

''I've always considered myself to be a good Catholic and have tried to contribute whenever I could,'' he says. ''But now I'm really uncomfortable, because I don't know where the money is going.''

Down from the pedestal

Ellie George attends Mass six mornings a week. It would be seven, but St. Gerard's doesn't have a Mass on Fridays.

After Mass, she walks from the church to the rectory next door, where she works as the head of the church's religious education program for nearly 700 children. George, 58, has long worked with, and looked up to, priests. ''They comfort the sick and bury the dead,'' she says simply. ''They're wonderful.''

She continues to admire the good priests, but she says she now understands the downside to putting priests ''up on a pedestal,'' as her generation did for so long. ''Unfortunately for them - and for us - we always did think they were a little bit higher,'' she says.

Some Catholics still do. At a recent family gathering, George's aunt, in her 80s, expressed consternation that priests were coming under such scrutiny. ''She can't understand how anybody can attack the priests,'' George says. Some members of her aunt's generation, she says, are ''blocking it out.''

Not George. She wants answers to the questions raised by the scandal. And she, like Bibeau, does not think those answers were forthcoming at the bishops' meeting in Dallas. ''It's a beginning,'' she says. ''But we need more as far as the people responsible for moving the priests around are concerned. The credibility issue as far as the leadership has to be dealt with.''

She was incensed by the revelations of child sex abuse involving priests and by what she calls ''the betrayal of the hierarachy, the coverup,'' referring to the fact that archdiocesan officials knew of some priests' misdeeds but still reassigned them from parish to parish. Then came a direct blow: allegations that the Rev. Peter R. Frost, a former associate pastor at St. Gerard's with whom she once worked, had molested minors.

''What is with these people?'' she asks. ''They're telling you to be good, and we're trying to be good, and what are they doing? It's just unfathomable.''

Though she acknowledges that lay Catholics haven't been ''trained'' to take charge of their church, she believes that ''now it's time for us to pick ourselves up.'' Despite the swirling scandal, registration for religious education at St. Gerard's remained strong through the first half of this year. But George worries that enrollment for the coming year's First Communion and Confirmation classes may be affected.

Meanwhile, she will keep attending daily Mass. ''I just pray for everyone, and for the strength to go through it,'' she says. ''It's really been so tough.''

Belief in the structure

A friend at St. Gerard's recently asked Paul Blake to attend a Voice of the Faithful meeting with him so Blake could see what the new lay movement is all about. Blake declined - respectfully - and the two met instead for coffee the next evening. As far as Blake is concerned, most people in the organization are well intentioned, but the structure of the Catholic Church is not to be tampered with.

''The Catholic Church is not a democracy. It's a hierarchical organization,'' says Blake, 63, who is director of human resources at an electronic communications company. ''Decisions are not made like in a private business corporation. I don't think the structure of the church is going to change.''

Blake is as appalled as any at the unfolding scandal, but he is wary of the move toward giving lay people more power. ''We're not a Protestant congregation where the majority votes and if they vote against you, you're out,'' he says. ''That's not the way the Catholic Church works. It has stood the test of time. It has been around 2,000 years, and it will be around another 2,000 years.''

Blake, who has been a member at St. Gerard's for 20 years, is also a staunch supporter of Cardinal Law. ''Cardinal Law through all of this is our bishop. I think it would be wrong for him to leave his post in the heat of the moment. Cardinal Law never touched a child. ... He's a good, decent man who had people reporting to him who were not doing their jobs.''

Blake agrees that mistakes were made and asks the same question as many of his fellow parishioners: What's next? It is in the answer that he begs to differ. He sees the future of the Catholic Church by looking to the past. ''Whenever the church has faced this problem in the past, the only answer that has straightened out the church is holiness. ... The church, 800 years ago, looked to people like St. Francis of Assisi. Today, the pope is the prime example of someone who is leading us toward holiness. Political solutions, structural solutions are not the answer the church has looked to in order to solve its problems.''

So you won't find Paul Blake joining Voice of the Faithful. Some of those most actively involved in the organization, he believes, are trying to push their own ''politically correct agendas, anything from women priests to whatever the fad of the moment is.'' All in all, he believes most at St. Gerard's are happy with the status quo. ''There were some mistakes made by Cardinal Law, but we're a church that preaches forgiveness, and now we need to practice it.''

`We dropped the ball'

John Hynes joined St. Gerard's at about the same time as Paul Blake. Unlike Blake, he is actively involved in Voice of the Faithful; he was instrumental in the recent organization of a South Shore chapter. Hynes considers himself a devout Catholic: St. Gregory's Elementary School in Dorchester, Catholic Memorial High, Stonehill College. His uncle was a priest, as are three cousins. He was an altar boy; his son and daughter have been altar servers at St. Gerard's.

Hynes, 58, an administrator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was shocked when the priest abuse scandal broke; he says he has directed most of his anger toward the hierarchy ''and the coverup that allowed the abuse to continue.'' In his mind, Cardinal Law's moral authority and leadership have been destroyed.

But Hynes is also angry at himself and his fellow lay Catholics. ''We dropped the ball after Vatican II,'' he says. ''We celebrated, and then we went about our lives. We assumed that the clergy would lead us into a new world of empowerment for the laity, but that didn't happen.''

Hynes and others at St. Gerard's have been making up for lost time. When the scandal broke, Father McLaughlin called a group of lay leaders together to talk about how best to empower the laity at St. Gerard's. ''It's the Jewish model, where everything but the sacraments need to be taken over by lay people,'' says Hynes.

With McLaughlin's encouragement, Hynes and others have become involved in Voice of the Faithful, whose goal is to form a chapter in every parish and whose motto is ''Keep the Faith, Change the Church.'' The group aims to help the victims of sexual abuse, to support the good priests, and to work for structural change of the Catholic Church. Hynes wrote the group's guide for forming a parish chapter, and he is trying to start one at St. Gerard's; a few others have already started on the South Shore, including in Hingham and Braintree. The St. Gerard's contingent has been attending Voice of the Faithful meetings at St. Paul's in Hingham.

The group stresses that it is ''centrist,'' that its agenda does not include such hot-button issues as women priests or an end to clergy celibacy. They want only to have a voice in guiding and governing the Catholic Church. ''We are convinced that if left to its own devices the archdiocese will continue to preserve the culture of silence, secrecy, and closed authoritarian structure that got us into the current mess in the first place,'' Hynes wrote in a Voice of the Faithful pamphlet. ''The parish of St. Gerard's is painfully aware of the adverse consequences of that culture,'' he added, referring to the allegations against Frost.

John Hynes is certain the parish will have its own Voice of the Faithful chapter before long. ''Empowering the laity was invented at St. Gerard's,'' he says.

Reevaluation of roles

In 1978, Jane and John Thornton were married at St. Gerard's by Frost. Now both 47, they raised their five children in the church. Recently, they were stunned to learn of the allegations that Frost sexually molested boys at the parish in the 1980s.

Jane Thornton, a nurse leader in the Canton public schools, was more shocked at the alleged coverup by the hierarchy than she was by the revelations of sexual abuse by priests. ''I wasn't surprised by the pedophilia,'' she says. ''I'm a nurse. But I was surprised it was tolerated at a high level.'' She feels strongly that Cardinal Law should resign. ''If I was aware of this in a school system and moved nurses around, I would be arrested.''

Like Hynes, she feels a new sense of responsibility to help fix the Catholic Church. ''Many of us haven't thought about the role that we as laity should play in running the church,'' she says. ''We don't concern ourselves with the workings of the church.''

Thornton agrees that the parishioners at St. Gerard's are deeply immersed in the workings of their own parish. They know that the shrinking number of priests is another reason parishioners need to take over some duties, and they believe that lay people should be allowed greater power. ''For those with absolute power, the boat needs to be rocked,'' she says.

Fighting financially

When Greg Pando opened his Cardinal's Appeal letter last month, he sat right down and wrote his own letter in response, spelling out the reasons he would not be making a contribution this year: that Cardinal Law has ''not been forthright in addressing or resolving these horrific issues.''

In Pando's view, the archdiocese's reaction to the sex-abuse crisis is more than an isolated incident; it illustrates what he sees as a disconnect between the church's leaders and its flock. ''There's this mountain range, the Himalayas, between Lake Street and the parishes,'' he contends. ''It's a very regal, officious, patronizing, medieval system.''

Pando's own response has been to become an advocate for the decentralization of church power, using money as the leverage to force change. He predicts that the Cardinal's Appeal, which is reportedly lagging severely compared to last year, will continue to have difficulty meeting its fund-raising goals and will have to ''deal with individual parishes'' to raise the money. When they do, archdiocesan officials will find a new assertiveness among lay people at parishes such as St. Gerard's. All the listening sessions and prayer vigils and one-on-one discussions that sprang up in response to the clergy sex-abuse

crisis have brought the parish closer together.

So a crisis that might have divided and weakened Catholics seems instead to have unified them. ''What we realized is we do not need the archdiocese,'' says Pando. ''The local parish is the church.''

Youth ministry

In January when the scandal broke, and for months thereafter, Mike Mahan found it difficult to sleep.

What gnawed at the 52-year-old head of the St. Gerard's youth ministry was a deep sense of betrayal by the archdiocesan hierarchy. He wanted to scream: ''You sold out the church, you sold out the clergy, sold out the parishioners, sold out the kids - to protect criminals.''

His faith was being tested. He needed to act, and he did. He taught a class to 15-year-old parishioners undergoing the Confirmation process. He spoke from the altar at a prayer vigil for victims of clergy sex abuse. He plunged into planning a church-run summer camp. But there was still an open wound. Most immediately, there was his anger at what he calls ''the hurt to families'' and ''the shame brought upon the church.'' On another level, Mahan feared that ''anyone who works with youth is under this huge cloud now.''

In April, when his students in Confirmation class wrote the required faith statements - their explanations of what their faith means to them - Mahan was ''very surprised by the number of kids who mentioned the scandal.''

Their overall reaction was one of disgust, he says. Next month, Mahan plans to form a committee of kids to explore what further responses they want to make to the crisis.

Mahan, who also works as a financial consultant, has come to believe that ''the bishops and cardinals need to be out of all administration of the Catholic Church. Their authority is sacramental and liturgical. They should not be involved in the finances, who pays what to whom, the secrecy, and all that. We can see what they've done when left alone.''

It's not easy, but he is maintaining a dogged optimism about the possibilities for reform. ''Within the crisis is opportunity,'' he says. ''When you get hit and you get knocked down, you've got to get up.''

This story ran on page E1 of the Boston Globe on 7/16/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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