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Spotlight Report

PARISH AT THE CROSSROADS

After a priest's betrayal, a parish deals with the sorrow and the pain

By Bella English, Globe Staff, 7/17/2002

Many weren't yet parishioners at St. Gerard Majella Church in Canton a generation ago, when the Rev. Peter Frost was there, but today, you can be sure that every single member of the church knows the name by heart. Frost is ''on the list.'' He's ''one of the bad ones.'' At St. Gerard's, Peter Frost has become the human face of the priest-abuse scandal.

In 1980, Frost was confronted by a parishioner whose son had alleged that Frost molested him. Frost replied, ''I'm caught,'' according to the father. Still, the priest was allowed to remain at the parish, provided he ''get help'' for his problem. Five years later, another boy told his parents he had been molested by Frost. It would be three more years - 1988 - before Frost was forced to leave St. Gerard's. And then, in what has become a familiar scenario to Boston-area Catholics, he was merely moved, first to a parish in Milton and then Readville.

In 1992, Frost was placed on ''sick leave.'' He reportedly lives in Natick, where he is still listed as ''clergy'' in the town census; he could not be reached for comment.

But the people at St. Gerard's have plenty to say. For them, the Frost allegations have brought the larger Catholic Church scandal right to their front door. Many of them know the MacDonalds, a family with nine children who grew up in the church. It was Ken MacDonald who in 1980 confronted Frost about his 14-year-old son, Bryan. It is Bryan, now 37, who has filed a lawsuit against Frost and the Catholic Church.

''It was certainly a turning point here,'' says the Rev. Bernard McLaughlin, the current pastor at St. Gerard's. ''People were angry and sad and have had to deal with that.'' He could be speaking for himself. Father Mac, as he is called, knew nothing of the Frost trouble when he joined the parish seven years ago. He learned of it this year from the newspaper. After the story broke, he wrote parishioners a letter: ''Words fail. ... Please know the depth of anguish that we share.''

Soon after, several parishioners donated money to buy space for an open letter in The Patriot Ledger. To the victims, they wrote: ''We are profoundly sorry for the wrongs committed against you.'' To the ''good and decent priests,'' they wrote: ''Please know that we will not allow the wrongs of the few to taint the good names of the many.''

The news about Frost came as the greatest shock to those who were in the parish when Frost was a trusted presence at St. Gerard's. Ann Ackil's four boys were in religious-education programs with Frost. Ackil has asked her children, now adults, about him. ''Thank God, no one had anything to report to me,'' she says. Still, the Frost scandal - and the larger priest scandal - has had some fallout on the Ackil boys. ''They won't come back here to church,'' she says. ''They're disillusioned.''

Paul Blake raised three children at St. Gerard's and knew Frost. ''I was extremely surprised and extremely angry,'' he says of the allegations. ''I think people who use a position of trust to molest a child should go to jail.''

Frost was the first priest Bridget Vaughan ever knew. As a child, she sat dutifully in her pew every Sunday, listening to his Mass. She attended his religious-education classes. The church has been the setting of some of her most precious memories, from First Communion to her wedding. Today, she takes her toddler to a ''Moms and Tots'' play group at the church. At 31, she is a middle school teacher, church lector, and mother of two. These days, she winces at the memories of all of those Frost sermons she attentively listened to. ''Everything he said was just a waste,'' she says bitterly.

She worries that, while her parish remains strong, other people have ''turned away from the [Catholic] Church because of this.''

Not Eileen MacDonald. Despite what a priest allegedly did to her son years ago, she continues to go to Mass at St. Gerard's regularly. She, too, believes that the Catholic Church will change - but for the better. ''I look at the c hurch as the people, as all of us,'' she says. ''The people will change the church.''

This story ran on page F6 of the Boston Globe on 7/17/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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