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Spotlight Report

  The Rev. Walter Cuenin of Our Lady Help of Christians Church has questioned church policy. (Globe Staff Photo / Janet Knott)

Curb imposed on Newton parish

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 12/5/2002

NEWTON - Cardinal Bernard F. Law, attempting to assert his authority even as criticism of his conduct rises to fever pitch, has summarily banned all church agencies from holding meetings at a vibrant Newton parish headed by an outspoken pastor who has questioned church teachings on gays and women and has sometimes chafed at Law's leadership.

Law offered no explanation for the ban, but it comes after the pastor, the Rev. Walter H. Cuenin, invited more than 100 priests to a gathering tomorrow to discuss concerns about the archdiocese's current fund-raising drive. The priests planned to discuss the difficulty of raising money when the archdiocese is considering bankruptcy and has been forced to release documents containing allegations of a priest striking a woman, another using drugs, and others molesting children and having sex with adults.

Law's action, barring all ''archdiocesan-sponsored or archdiocesan-related meetings'' from taking place on the grounds of Our Lady Help of Christians Church, has infuriated area priests, as well as parishioners at the booming church.

''Instead of solving problems like priests abusing girls and giving drugs to kids, they're going after Walter,'' said a parishioner, Gisela Morales-Barreto. ''It's crazy, and they can be assured that the whole parish, which is huge and financially stable, will be behind Walter Cuenin, and not behind Brighton.'' Law's residence and offices are in Brighton.

The ban was announced in a terse e-mail from the archdiocesan secretary for pastoral services, the Rev. Arthur M. Coyle, to the heads of archdiocesan agencies. The e-mail was sent Tuesday, and a copy was obtained by the Globe yesterday.

The e-mail reads: ''Good morning, All! Because of some past issues, as well as current issues now being addressed, the cardinal announced at cabinet this morning that until further notice no archdiocesan-sponsored or archdiocesan-related meetings, programs, workshops, etc. are to be held on the grounds of Our Lady Help of Christians parish in Newton.''

Cuenin was not sent a copy of the e-mail, and neither Law nor any of his aides has called Cuenin to explain the action. The e-mail does not offer any explanation.

Law's spokeswoman, Donna M. Morrissey, confirmed the prohibition, but declined any further comment.

Cuenin said he was upset by the step.

''It's a slap at the parish, but also a slap at me, and what really irritates me is that even in this climate, it's all still being done in secrecy,'' he said. ''I've never heard of anything like this, where the archdiocese would single out a parish. On the one hand, you want to laugh about it, but on the other hand, it's sad.''

Cuenin said he is not sure what triggered the ban, but he suspects it is his plan to hold a meeting with priests. Cuenin said he might have further offended the chancery when he declined to allow archdiocesan fund-raisers to attend the meeting, which he thought should be a conversation among parish priests.

''I'm dismayed because it just came out of the blue,'' he said. ''Whatever the issues are that we're talking about have never been called to my attention.''

The director of the archdiocesan capital campaign, Kenneth Hokenson, said he has no problem with priests meeting to discuss their concerns.

''I have no problem with the clergy talking out how they feel about it,'' Hokenson said. ''I realize that, like a lot of the laity, a lot of the clergy are upset about what has transpired, and that having them conduct a capital campaign in the midst of this is a very difficult job for them. We're sensitive to that, and we're there to provide whatever assistance we can.''

Hokenson said the campaign has raised nearly $190 million in pledges and gifts so far, toward a $300 million goal. The campaign is scheduled to end June 30. About 135 parishes are scheduled to begin raising money for the campaign early next year.

Over the last decade, Cuenin's Washington Street church has been heavily used for archdiocesan events because of its size, location near Boston and the Mass. Pike, and ample parking. It is also just a few miles from the chancery, allowing the cardinal to make brief appearances at gatherings. The church was used most prominently by the archdiocese in 1995, when Law chose it as the site for the visit of Mother Teresa. And several events were scheduled for coming months, including a visit by Law on New Year's Eve.

Home to 2,600 Catholic households, the church ordinarily draws about 1,800 people to Sunday Mass, although attendance there, as elsewhere around the archdiocese, is down because of the sex abuse crisis. Our Lady's is generally regarded as one of the most vibrant of the 362 parishes in the Archdiocese. The church was the first of eight churches profiled in the book ''Excellent Catholic Parishes'' (Paulist Press, 2001).

The scandal has hit home at Our Lady's - the church is home to the former parishioners of Saint John the Evangelist Church in Newton, which before being closed had been led by the Rev. Paul R. Shanley, an alleged serial abuser of young men.

Cuenin has had a cordial but complex relationship with church leaders, and a somewhat unusual clerical career. Ordained in 1970, he once took a year off to work as a travel agent. He has occasionally been summoned to meet with his supervisors over comments that were perceived as too liberal.

He attracted Law's attention in April when he urged the Legislature to reject a ban on same-sex marriages, despite the support for the ban by the Catholic bishops of the state. Law demanded a copy of Cuenin's testimony and then asked for a meeting with the priest. But Law then canceled seven successive appointments with Cuenin and has never spoken with him about the issue.

The archdiocesan newspaper, The Pilot, which is controlled by Law, raised critical questions about Cuenin in September after Cuenin was quoted in the New Yorker as saying that the issues of birth control, divorce, and the ordination of married men and women should be discussed. Cuenin was quoted as saying that the church should not describe gays as ''disordered,'' and, most provocatively, as declaring that ''exceptional women are waiting to serve. We have married men who would make wonderful priests. We don't need more vocations - they are already here. Let's just accept them.''

But Cuenin holds an important position at the archdiocese - he is the director of pilgrimages, meaning that he accompanies the cardinal and local Catholics on trips to see the pope or to visit Rome. And he is a founder and leader of the Boston Priests Forum.

''The vast majority of people respect him greatly and think his leadership has been of the highest order,'' said parishioner Margaret Roylance. ''He's certainly exceptionally outspoken for a pastor in the Archdiocese of Boston, but it says in the Bible `by your fruits you shall know them,' and what has he produced? A really active, thriving parish that is centered in the Eucharist and is all the things that a faith community ought to be.''

The parish's top lay leader, parish pastoral council vice-chairman Drew J. Hannah, said Cuenin ''is not a troublemaker. His posture is to work within the system, and not to alienate people that may have more traditional beliefs. He does that better than anybody I've seen so far.''

The move against Cuenin was not the first time Law and his subordinates have acted this year against groups perceived as critical of the church. In April, he ordered priests not to cooperate with an evolving coalition of parish leaders, which his top aide termed ''superfluous and potentially divisive,'' and in October he imposed a freeze on allowing new chapters of Voice of the Faithful, a lay group, from meeting on church property.

The Rev. Robert W. Bullock, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Sharon and a leader of the priests' forum, said it is difficult to know what the latest step means.

''Is it directed against the parish? Is the parish being bad? Or is it because the Boston Priests' Forum met there? We're full of doubt about it,'' Bullock said. ''If it's a question of Walter Cuenin, I think that's ill advised in the extreme. Walter Cuenin is an admirable pastor, he's very bright, he's theologically sound, and he's courageous. If we don't trust priests like Walter Cuenin, we are in grave difficulty.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 12/5/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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