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Spotlight Report

  The Rev. Bernard McLaughlin receives ashes from one of St. Gerard Majella's young parishioners, Erin Hynes, before a prayer vigil for victims of sexual abuse. (Globe Staff Photo / Suzanne Kreiter)
More photos of St. Gerard's

PARISH AT THE CROSSROADS

The future of their faith

At one church, the abuse scandal causes young Catholics to question their beliefs

By Don Aucoin, Globe Staff, 7/18/2002

Part 3 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.

 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
The Globe's Don Aucoin, co-author of the St. Gerard series, talks with Boston.com readers about this series and the abuse scandal.

CANTON - On a serene Sunday morning, three children chased one another across the entrance to St. Gerard Majella Church, their game of tag impeded only by a stack of newspapers whose headlines they were too young to read.

The headlines spoke, as they so often have in the past seven months, of a crisis that has torn through the heart of the Catholic Church: the sexual abuse of children by priests. This time, though, the news was of bishops finally moving to safeguard the church's youngest members. We have learned our lessons, the bishops promised. In voting to remove alleged abusers from active ministry while allowing them to remain priests, we have gone as far as we can, the bishops insisted.

Ryan Masciarelli, 16, wasn't buying. He glanced over at the newspapers on sale in front of the church, then offered his view of the new guidelines without a trace of doubt or deference in his voice: ''If they have committed those crimes - and that's what they are - they should be stripped of the priesthood.''

Masciarelli's faith is strong, his commitment to his own parish unwavering. A few minutes after issuing those vehement words, he would walk into the church, kneel at a pew with his father and sister, and bow his head in prayer. He and others like him are the face of Catholicism's future. But it is clear that the face this generation will present to the church will be full of skepticism and challenge. It has not been lost on Masciarelli and his peers that it was kids their own age who were in harm's way.

''They betrayed us,'' Masciarelli said flatly. ''To move someone from parish to parish knowing he'd been involved in sexual abuse, it's disgusting. How they could have scaled such a major coverup - it's a major deal to me, really a major deal.''

The milestones of young Catholics' lives usually consist of their baptism, First Communion, and Confirmation. They are joyous events that mark the maturing of their faith, and themselves, as Catholics. Now there is a fourth milestone that none were prepared for, an unthinkable new hurdle to clear on the journey into faith. For youngsters whose identities as Catholics are still being formed, who do not have decades of tradition to draw upon, there is the sensation of once-solid ground moving under their feet. Where there was certainty, there are now questions, felt and expressed with the anguished intensity of youth.

''How could God and the church just let this happen?'' asked Stacia Hanlon, 17.

Hanlon, Masciarelli, and the other young people of St. Gerard's are reacting both in sorrow and in anger. Some 15-year-olds walked away from the Catholic Church in disgust in the middle of their Confirmation process. Some of those who remained penned angry or anguished passages in the ''faith statements'' that are a ritual part of preparation for Confirmation.

The scandal has reverberated through their lives in poignant and sometimes unexpected ways. Some teenagers who work as baby sitters or camp counselors wonder whether the shadow of suspicion has fallen on them, too, and on anyone whose job involves caring for children. Having seen leaders violate the moral teachings of the Catholic Church, some have a new wariness about authority figures. ''The irony and the hypocrisy that was going on here - that these men we look up to as role models were doing everything they told us not to,'' said Juli D'Agostino, 17. Added Masciarelli: ''You can't listen to them preach what they don't practice. That has shaken the faith of some kids, I'm sure.''

All this has made the job of Michael Mahan, director of youth ministry at St. Gerard's, a lot harder. Not since the Monica Lewinsky scandal, when President Clinton tried to parse his way out of trouble, has Mahan felt on such shaky ground when discussing sexual ethics with young people. The reaction by some, Mahan said, is: ''These guys made these rules, they broke them, so they can't be a big deal.''

That kind of disaffection is all the more significant because young people are not on the periphery of parish life at St. Gerard's; they are its very center. The church runs a summer camp attended by hundreds of youngsters. Religious-education classes are filled to overflowing. Teenagers are allowed to perform readings from scripture at Mass, to write the weekly ''prayers of the faithful,'' to hand out Holy Communion. Each summer, St. Gerard's young people travel far from home to help those less fortunate: working in a soup kitchen for the homeless in Philadelphia, building a home for an impoverished family in Kentucky.

On a recent weeknight in the parish hall, the communal pride was palpable as parishioners and their children watched a slide show of parish youngsters working on such volunteer projects last summer. The ethic that St. Gerard's adults are trying to instill is one of social responsibility, and that, they worry, could be jeopardized by the current crisis.

''We try to teach them to act like Christ,'' explained Jim Andersen, 49, an accountant and father of four who assists Mahan with the youth ministry. ''We teach them to ask: `What would Jesus do?' And then you have the ultimate role-model crash.'' Cardinal Bernard Law's actions left Anderson asking, ''What did he just do to us? [When it comes to getting] these kids moving along on their faith, he just blew it.''

The crisis has been a kind of crucible that has forced young people to grapple with philosophical, spiritual, and practical questions. Some St. Gerard's teenagers agonize over what their non-Catholic friends might privately think of them and their church. Some fret about the hurt feelings of innocent priests who now encounter public disdain while conceding that they, too, look at clerics differently.

''I still respect them,'' said Hanlon. ''But if you look at one and he looks a little sketchy, you keep your eye out.'' From now on, she predicted, ''When kids ask to be altar servers, their parents are going to think twice.''

Many are determined to forge a more pluralistic future for their church, one that includes women as priests, allows priests to marry, and is generally less defined by a top-down structure. With the clear sense of right and wrong characteristic of the young, they don't see much gray area when it comes to the behavior of the bishops. ''The people who allowed this to happen, they should leave,'' said Matthew Driscoll, 13. ''They should have left a long time ago.''

But the dominant emotion among the church's children is one of sudden vulnerability. Their trust in St. Gerard's pastor, the Rev. Bernard McLaughlin, is absolute, but in the hierarchy above the beloved ''Father Mac'' they perceive indifference or incompetence or both. ''It's pretty weird,'' remarked 15-year-old Pat Curry. ''I don't see how they could have become priests, with that background.''

With the grown-ups having botched things so thoroughly, kids wonder who is in charge. Their elders may recall Pope John Paul II as the robust figure he was for much of his papacy, but teenagers see the leader of their church as old, frail, and distant. And Cardinal Law, the voice of authority in the archdiocese for as long as they have been alive?

Hanlon shook her head sadly. ''I don't think he understands how much this has affected us,'' she said.

A difference through prayer

Mosquitoes were buzzing and biting as dusk fell, but Erin Hynes paid them no mind as she stood stock-still in the parking lot outside St. Gerard's, a glass bowl of ashes cupped in her hands.

One by one, parishioners stepped before the solemn-faced 18-year-old, took a pinch from the bowl, and daubed it on their foreheads. Even Father Mac waited his turn to receive ashes from Hynes. Then she moved among the parishioners, most of them decades older than she is, handing out candles for a processional into the church as part of a prayer vigil for victims of sexually abusive priests.

Barely a week out of high school, Hynes probably could have been partying somewhere rather than attending a prayer service where the music ventured no closer to rock 'n' roll than ''Amazing Grace.'' But she had no doubt why she was here. ''This is a chance for us to come together as a community and show that prayer can make a difference, to use prayer to touch the victims of the tragedy,'' she said before entering the church.

Church is a place where Hynes has always felt safe and utterly at home. But if you talk to young people like her, you learn that the unique aspect of the current crisis is that it has cast its troubling shadows not just on the present, but also on the past. They question everything; they feel a queasy kinship with the victims. Hynes, an altar server when she was younger, now wonders, ''If I was in another parish, could it have happened to me?'' Not since her freshman year at Notre Dame Academy in Hingham, when three fellow students were killed in a horrific car crash, has her faith, so clear and durable, been so shaken.

Now college beckons. Even though she has chosen a Catholic institution, Merrimack College in North Andover, Hynes wonders what kind of reception awaits her in the wider world. ''It really started to affect my thinking,'' she said. ''The pride I always had in my religion, all of a sudden, it hit me: If I go out into the world, when I tell people I'm Catholic, what are they going to think? That hurt a lot.''

There is further pain in this thought, but she forces it out because she thinks it is true: ''There are people who are going to be embarrassed, who aren't going to want the world to know they're Catholic.''

Hynes won't be one of them. On the day she graduated from Notre Dame Academy, she hoped to skip Mass for once, but her father scotched the idea. It was a rare act of rebellion. She hasn't left any of the 15 parish youth committees she serves on; she is still a Eucharistic minister at St. Gerard's. When she goes to Mass on Sundays, she says, ''My prayer has been a lot stronger. It's more important now for me to be there.'' She is determined to be part of Catholicism's future.

Still, like many young parishioners at St. Gerard's, she is also determined that the future not repeat the mistakes of the past. Rather than centering on ''one male making the decisions,'' she said, the Catholic Church needs to ask: ''Could women bring better leadership to the church?''

Hynes is also struggling with a contradiction. Initially, she was inclined to forgive Cardinal Law for his mistakes in handling sexually abusive priests. After all, she reasoned, forgiveness is a cornerstone of Catholic doctrine. But there have been times, she admits, when she has wondered: ''Is forgiveness really a possibility?''

A vigil of sympathy and support

At the prayer vigil, Hynes sat quietly in the darkened church, one of nearly 100 people holding candles, as several parishioners spoke from the pulpit about the crisis convulsing the Catholic Church. Among them were the Driscoll brothers: Patrick, 15; Matthew, 13; and Chris, 11. Matthew offered a prayer for the alleviation of the ''pain and suffering'' of ''all those that were abused by clergy.'' Mahan asked that anyone who wished to speak stand up. Hynes stood, then appeared to change her mind and sat down.

But she didn't hesitate when the ceremony shifted from words to action and parishioners began writing letters of consolation to victims. As the church pianist played a somber, slowed-down version of an aria from ''La Traviata,'' Hynes wrote:

''To the family of a victim: Dear family, My thoughts and prayers are with you during this very difficult time. My heart goes out to you for everything you have had to deal with. Use this time to find the strength in your heart to allow your faith in God to forgive. This awful tragedy will allow us as Catholics to strengthen our faith community as we come together and pray and deal with the happenings of our church. God bless.''

She signed it: '' Love, a friend.''

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 7/18/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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