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Spotlight Report

Three faces in crowd bound in hope, faith

By Globe Staff, 7/31/2003

Thomas Farragher, Monica Rhor, and Geoff Edgers of the Globe Staff spent the day yesterday with three of those invited to yesterday's service. This is their report.

In a cathedral filled with parishioners, priests, and the spirit of hope, they were just three faces in the crowd.

There was a victim of clergy sexual abuse, returning to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross for the first time since he was taken there 40 years ago by the priest he accuses of sexual assault.

There was a devout Catholic from Randolph, who says her faith is not just about the rosary she sleeps with or the weekly Masses she attends, but "her whole life."

And there was the priest from Billerica, who has ministered to the faithful at St. Theresa's Church through what has been called the worst crisis in the history of the US Catholic Church.

They came by ferry and carpool and through the tangled traffic of a sparkling summer morning.

Archbishop Sean Patrick O'Malley almost certainly did not recognize them among the packed pews yesterday as he began his work as head of the nation's fourth largest Catholic diocese.

But Tom Blanchette, Marthe Viaud, and the Rev. Eugene Tully personify three critical constituencies for O'Malley as he begins his work to rebuild a church whose faith and finances have been rocked by scandal.

The three visitors to the cathedral yesterday brought with them vastly different faith experiences.

But in O'Malley's words and his humble bearing, they agreed, they found the seeds for renewal.

"I have come to serve you, to wash your feet, as Jesus says," O'Malley said. "And to repeat the Great Commandment: Love one another as Christ loves us. In His love, we are bound."

And with those words -- if the archbishop looked closely enough -- he could have seen at least three heads nodding in assent.

A victim finds evidence for hope

The last time Tom Blanchette climbed the stone steps to Boston's old cathedral, he was just a child -- an altar boy from the suburbs accompanied by the parish priest who sexually abused him so often that Blanchette still remembers the pattern of the wallpaper in the priest's rectory bedroom.

By the time he returned to the neo-Gothic church in the South End yesterday, Blanchette, now 56, had largely exorcised the terrible ghosts that lingered long after his mistreatment by the Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham at Our Lady of Fatima parish in Sudbury in the early 1960s.

He worships in an Episcopal church now. But Blanchette still longs to see leaders of the faith of his youth repent and change. As he stood at the foot of the cathedral steps before yesterday's installation, he said he was hopeful that Archbishop O'Malley would be the agent of that renewal.

"I think he's genuine in what he is," said Blanchette. "He's a genuine Franciscan. I want everyone to say what they mean and mean what they say. I hope he keeps his vows and keeps his word. He said he would like to come to a quick resolution of the lawsuit and make a settlement, and I hope he does that. I have a hopeful expectation."

Blanchette and a friend, Marcia Denine, boarded a 6 a.m. ferry from Martha's Vineyard, where Blanchette works as a self-employed contractor, to arrive on time for the late-morning installation. When he walked past protesters angrily denouncing priests and parishioners walking into the service, Blanchette identified himself as a clergy abuse victim and told them that he, too, was going inside.

A protester snorted at him: "Good luck to you then. I have no use for you."

With the serenity of a man who has long since made peace with his past, Blanchette would not allow the contemptuous words to carry much sting.

"You're entitled to be angry as long as you want to be angry," Blanchette said later. "But it rots you from the inside out."

Blanchette knows.

He carried his anger around for years after Birmingham, a friend of his family, left Sudbury in 1964. Blanchette chafed against authority. He was short-tempered. And in 1988, the year before Birmingham died, he decided to confront his abuser, finding him at St. Brigid's rectory in Lexington.

Blanchette told his old parish priest -- who on Good Friday in the early 1960s took him to visit the Cathedral of the Holy Cross -- that he had no right to have attacked him and four of his brothers. And then he asked Birmingham's forgiveness "for the hatred and resentment" that had simmered inside him for 25 years.

A year later, he paid another visit to Birmingham, but learned the priest was gravely ill. On the night before Birmingham's death, Blanchette prayed over him at Symmes Hospital in Arlington. He asked God to forgive his abuser.

As he sat in the cathedral yesterday, Blanchette, invited by the archdiocese's liaison to abuse victims, said he felt "this great feeling of peace."

And when the new archbishop began to speak, Blanchette said he was moved as O'Malley compared the wounds of clergy sexual abuse victims to the wounds on the body of Christ.

"I found that very profound," Blanchette said. "My thoughts went to those guys out front of the cathedral who are so filled with bitterness."

O'Malley drew applause when he said there were many good priests in attendance yesterday -- "so many good priests struggling to make sense of it all."

But Blanchette was not one of those who applauded. "Not all priests have committed offenses against children," he said. "But most are complicit in the conspiracy of silence. I think that was a grave omission that the priests individually and the church collectively must repent on."

Blanchette met with O'Malley on July 1, one of 10 victims invited to meet with archbishop-elect the day his appointment was made public by the Vatican.

"If you want to reconcile, you go see the guy face to face. I told him that I believe there is a demonic stronghold over the Archdiocese of Boston," Blanchette said.

Healing, Blanchette said, cannot come through lofty, hopeful words spoken from a cathedral pulpit.

"His words are good, but he's got to take some action, and if he doesn't it will mean the continued demise of the greater church of the archdiocese," Blanchette said. "There's this big lack of trust among us."

If the church is unwilling or unable to offer abuse victims a financial settlement, Blanchette, a plaintiff in a civil lawsuit against the church, said he is ready to seek justice in a courtroom.

"Somebody once told me -- and it really struck a chord -- that forgiveness is an act of will. If you're willing to forgive, you can see the benefits of reconciliation."

A believer hears words from the heart

Moments after Marthe Viaud lifted her head from her pillow on Wednesday morning, she reached for a set of rosary beads and began her day as she always does -- by asking God to bless her and guide her.

Then, Viaud added a special prayer to the litany she recites without fail every morning.

"I asked God to bless our new archbishop and to help him be a good father for us, for everybody," said Viaud, 63, who sleeps with a rosary tucked under her pillow, and always carries at least two sets inside a gray plaid change purse.

That hope, kindled inside Viaud's heart shortly after it was announced that O'Malley would be the new leader of the Archdiocese of Boston, had grown stronger in recent weeks, as word of the Franciscan friar's reputation spread through St. Angela's of Mattapan, Viaud's parish for 25 years.

Viaud, a Haitian immigrant who helped found St. Angela's Haitian Apostolate, was heartened by news reports recounting O'Malley's experience in other dioceses beset by crisis, gladdened to learn of his special rapport with immigrant communities and touched by something intangible that she sensed in her archbishop-elect.

But, for Viaud, who had never seen O'Malley in person, that perception was something gleaned from afar, born more out of soulful wish than eyewitness testimony.

That would change yesterday, when Viaud became one of 2,500 people to attend O'Malley's installation ceremony at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. She received one of the two tickets given to every parish for distribution to selected congregants or employees.

Viaud had planned to watch the ceremony on television from her home in Randolph. Instead, she would have a chance to see firsthand if O'Malley's first words as the Archbishop of Boston matched her expectations.

"I am hoping that we have a good leader," she said, thinking especially of the clergy abuse crisis that deeply disturbed her but did not rattle her faith.

So, Wednesday morning, Viaud slipped on one of her Sunday-best suits in cafe au lait satin, pinning a medal of Jesus Christ to one lapel and wearing a delicate mother-of-pearl crucifix around her neck. Inside her brown purse, she carried three sets of rosary beads.

Then, she headed to St. Angela's, where she would meet the parish priests and other congregants attending the ceremony.

This would be a pivotal day for the church in Boston, and so it would be a pivotal moment for Viaud, whose faith is more than just an occasional prayer or once-a-week Mass. It is, she says, "her whole life."

Her faith guided her through the labyrinth of immigration, especially during her early years in Boston when she was separated from her husband and four children who remained in Haiti. It sustained her during the five years spent nursing her dying mother. And it strengthened her over the past year, when a cyst in her right leg made it painful to sit, stand, or kneel.

If Viaud was in pain during the two-hour-plus installation ceremony, it did not show. When she emerged from the cathedral, her eyes were dancing behind her wire-rimmed glasses. The hope in her heart was burning brighter.

O'Malley, who began his homily by speaking in Spanish, Portuguese, and Haitian Creole, had exceeded Viaud's expectations.

"He spoke my language," said Viaud, her face brightening as she recalled the moment in the ceremony, when O'Malley spoke of his work with the Haitian community in Palm Beach.

That resonated with Viaud as a Haitian, but the rest of his words resonated with her as a Catholic -- especially his parting words: "By his holy cross, we will build a city."

For Viaud, the words -- and O'Malley's entire demeanor -- seemed to offer a promise of rebirth.

Not even the protesters waving signs and handing out fliers condemning church officials for covering up sexual abuse seemed to disturb Viaud's optimism for the future of the archdiocese. As she walked past the small knot of demonstrators, Viaud looked straight ahead and did not acknowledge the clamor.

"We could see that his words come from his heart. The way he was speaking. We could feel it," said Viaud. "I feel like God is sending someone to help. I like what I see in his face. I believe he has a healing power."

A priest taking comfort in song and prayer

Father Gene Tully appreciates a good joke, and he's quick to break into a throaty chuckle. But he's also the first to admit that the last 16 months have been the worst in his 35 years as a priest.

There were no protests at his parish, St. Theresa's in Billerica, and no priests removed for abusing children. But as Tully watched the scandal grow, he became increasingly frustrated with his church.

A priest suffers just as others do: There were mornings he didn't want to get out of bed. Times his friends, accustomed to hearing him joke or laugh, asked if everything was all right. One day, in a hospital elevator after visiting patients, Tully suddenly felt uncomfortable in his collar. Everybody seemed to be staring. Guilt by association is what he called it.

"The last 16, 17 months have been absolutely terrible," says Tully. "Trying to keep your own morale up, and your own enthusiasm. And trying to keep the morale up with your people."

The installation would be a new start. He was going to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross to watch O'Malley, a Franciscan friar, become the sixth archbishop of Boston. Tully had heard so many good things. Now, he would see for himself.

A few minutes after 9, he got behind the wheel of his Mercury Cougar, flipped on a classical music station and started on the hourlong drive. On the way, he reflected on how far the church had come from 1950s Malden, where he grew up. In those days, a kid might get into trouble and the priests he knew best -- Father Jack and Father Joe -- were there for every confession.

The church scandal, though, changed everything, and demanded more of him as a priest. It drove him to get angry, confused, to vent with his fellow priests at meetings, or over a beer at the 99 Restaurant.

There were also the "listening" sessions in the church hall, with a social worker, canon lawyer, and psychologist present. People showed up to talk about being abused, but not at church, more often by relatives. The sessions seemed to help, but they were also intense and painful.

"You were emotionally drained, and physically drained," he said. "You felt like there was a ball and chain around your leg."

There was traffic as he motored into the city.

"I don't know what he's going to say, or how he's going to say it," he said. "But it's a day for priests and for people of religion to begin a new era. We need to support and welcome him."

Finally, Tully reached the cathedral, parked, and entered through the back. He put on his robes and joined a roomful of priests under the low ceiling of the basement, and then joined the processional through a side door, outside and around to the cathedral entrance.

He walked past protesters chanting slurs. He didn't look up, but he took notice. Inside the church, the archbishop's words didn't disappoint. Tully was glad to hear tough, honest language when O'Malley refers to the abuse. He was inspired by the spontaneous applause that came when the archbishop made reference to "so many good priests." And he couldn't believe O'Malley's amusing one-liners. Cardinal Law, this was not.

But it was a prayer that moved him the most, a hymn near the end of the service, "The Prayer of St. Francis." Tully has heard it hundreds of times, but somehow, he was struck by it. Particularly the line: "It is in pardoning that we are pardoned."

Back in Billerica later that afternoon, the hymn is one of the first things he mentioned to his colleague, Father Jack McCormick.

"I don't know about you, but when that prayer was sung, and you could hear the people around you singing, it, I just thought it was very touching."

Father Jack just nodded. "Wasn't it?"

Farragher was with Blanchette; Rhor with Viaud; Edgers with Tully.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 7/31/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.


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