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Earlier stories

Spotlight Report

Parishioners want priest back

By Bella English, Globe Staff, 8/11/2002

WEST BRIDGEWATER -- For the past 10 Sunday nights, they have met in front of St. Ann's Church, holding candles in one hand and rosaries in the other, praying and waiting, waiting and praying. They say they will be there every Sunday evening, as long as it takes, until their priest returns home.

The Rev. Edward C. McDonagh was removed from duty on May 24 by the Archdiocese of Boston because of an allegation that he abused a boy years ago -- 38 years ago, according to the complaint made by the sister and mother of the alleged victim, who is deceased.

Most of the parishioners are angry at the way the archdiocese handled the matter: McDonagh was suddenly whisked out of the rectory without any notice to church members, who heard about it on the news. And they are upset that, despite a meeting with archdiocese officials, their questions remain unanswered: What proof is there? What is the status of the case? How can a priest defend himself against a decades-old case when the unidentified accuser is dead?

It is the first allegation against McDonagh in his 40 years in the priesthood, and archdiocese officials have said the allegation was just recently lodged against him. No criminal charges or civil suit have been filed against the priest. McDonagh, 65, is said to be living with friends in the area; he has not spoken publicly about his removal, which his parishioners feel is retaliation for him publicly calling on Cardinal Bernard Law to resign. That particular sermon, delivered after news reports that Law knew about the Rev. Paul Shanley's alleged sexual abuse of children but merely transferred him to other parishes, drew a standing ovation from parishioners in this small, working-class town.

McDonagh also had told archdiocese officials that he could not, in good faith, ask his parishioners to give to the Cardinal's Appeal because he and his flock were upset at the way Law handled the sex abuse cases. "He spoke out forcefully against the child abuse and the way the cardinal handled it, and then he was gone," says Doreen Cagnina, who has been a parishioner at St. Ann's for 25 years. As for the allegation against him, she and other parishioners dismiss it. "Hearsay, hearsay, hearsay," says Cagnina, who teaches religious education classes at the church. "It's totally unsupported."

Says another parishioner: "The church went overboard to protect [convicted molester the Rev. John J.] Geoghan and Shanley and other bad priests, and now they're going overboard the other way, to cover their hides."

A week after McDonagh's removal, the archdiocesan newspaper, The Pilot, blasted him and other priests for daring to criticize the cardinal, saying that "promoting dissent against their bishop is a scandal." Parishioners point to the editorial as further proof that McDonagh is being punished for speaking out.

But mostly, they seem more frustrated than angry. They want their pastor back; they are tired of the parade of visiting priests coming through to deliver Mass.

"It's like a death, it's a terrible loss," says Cagnina. "How long are they going to drag this out?"

It's a good question. Because there is no criminal investigation or civil lawsuit, the case is solely in the hands of the archdiocese. Spokeswoman Donna Morrissey says: "It's an ongoing investigation. Father McDonagh remains on administrative leave." In a statement when McDonagh was removed, church officials said, "Should the allegation prove to be groundless, efforts will be made to restore the priest's reputation."

Easy for them to say, but how does a priest defend himself against decades-old charges when the accuser is dead? It's the flip side of a victim trying to prove that something happened, years later. It's not easy, in either case.

"There's a disconnect between the archdiocese, which may have a sound public policy in removing priests, but the individual doesn't get his day in court," says Boston attorney Tim O'Neill, who has represented priests on sex abuse charges. "I think it's a serious due process issue."

At St. Ann's, parishioners are doing their best to represent their beloved priest, who has been with them for 11 years. A roadside sign proclaims: "Pray for Father McDonagh." Similar signs sprout up throughout town. Some parishioners wear yellow lapel ribbons. They speak of his volunteer activities with the elderly, of his weekly nursing home visits and Masses. They have sent letters to Cardinal Law in support of McDonagh.

One wrote: "During this most troubling time of sexual abuse by priests, Father McDonagh has been a voice of reason -- harsh on all those involved, yet always emphasizing Jesus above judging. His words were not always what I wanted to hear, but were what I needed to hear . . . He amazed many of us with his courage to call for your resignation . . . because of your failure to properly handle this problem both before and after it rose to this level of publicity."

The letter went on to criticize the archdiocese's "one allegation -- you're out" policy. "It is this policy that has separated Father McDonagh from his flock with no more justification than a pointed finger. . . . This goes completely against the American policy of `innocent until proven guilty.' "

But everyone knows that the Catholic Church is not a democracy. The hierarchy rules, often in secret, and officials don't have to act on the issue -- either clearing McDonagh or dismissing him -- until they feel like it. Meanwhile, a parish and its priest wait.

"They're just dragging their butts," says parishioner John Venus.

At the vigil, McDonagh's parishioners pray for him, and for St. Ann's. "All we want is Father back," says Chris Baker, 24 years a member. "He gave us faith and hope, day in and day out. He was never too busy for us."

Many members agreed that they would leave the church -- not only St. Ann's, but the Catholic Church -- if McDonagh is not cleared.

As he addressed the vigil about Father McDonagh, parishioner Steve Hasomeris said: "The good news is there's no bad news. The bad news is there's no good news."

Occasionally, the priest will write a note to parishioners in the church bulletin. Last week, he thanked them for "the continuous flow of your love."

He said he hoped the process would soon end, paraphrasing St. Paul: "God may not come when we want, but He always arrives on time." He concluded: "I love you. I miss you. God bless you."

This story ran on page S5 of the Boston Globe on 8/11/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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