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Law's words frame new play

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Wary Catholics return to church

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Earlier stories

Spotlight Report

Making peace in the parishes

Catholic churches throughout the region report attendance on the rise

By Joanna Massey, Globe Staff, 1/25/2004

PEMBROKE -- The Rev. Robert Sullivan started noticing the faces last October, shortly after the Archdiocese of Boston reached an $85 million settlement agreement with more than 500 victims of sexual abuse.

Slowly, in a ''one-person-at-a-time kind of return" over recent months, attendance at his Catholic parish, St. Thecla in Pembroke, has been on the rise. It's happening in Kingston, too, where parishioners at St. Joseph's Parish ''have an entirely different mood than a year ago," said The Rev. Joseph Hennessey, and in Mansfield, where St. Mary's Parish is slowly bouncing back from a sharp decrease in churchgoers.

''Trust is being rebuilt where trust had eroded," said the Rev. George Bellenoit, the pastor at St. Mary's. ''People are realizing that the church is very serious about dealing with the sexual abuse crisis."

Catholic churches throughout the region report an uptick in not just attendance, but in donations and volunteerism as well. Two years after the sexual abuse scandal first broke, some Catholics who have felt alienated and distanced say they are beginning to make peace with the church.

''You can feel things turning; people are feeling better, more comfortable," said Stephen Dodge, a Pembroke resident and parishioner at St. Thecla. ''We've all been wounded in some respect by the crisis. Some of those wounds will heal quicker than others, but the important thing is that they're healing."

Not all have come back. While local churches such as St. Thecla have seen attendance at Mass services jump by about 7 or 8 percent recently, the overall drop-off during the past two years has been more like 15 to 20 percent, according to Sullivan.

''Some people will never be reconciled with the church, and some people will take years to come back; we're under no illusion that everything's behind us and we're on easy street now," said Hennessey, of St. Joseph's in Kingston. He said officials there took out an advertisement in a local newspaper reminding residents that ''good things are still happening" in the Roman Catholic Church. ''Despite the errors of the past, we're moving forward."

The message of moving beyond the crisis also is central to several parish ministries and support groups that have formed at local churches. A new St. Thecla ministry was created by a group of about 20 parishioners to serve the sick and homebound as well as an attempt to reach out to those who feel isolated from the church, said coordinator Barbara McMorrow, a 37-year church member.

She said volunteers with the parish ministry will cook meals, run errands, or give communion at home to those who need help.

''It's been a tough time for the church, and we saw a real need for people to reach out to other people," McMorrow said. ''It's kind of bringing church outside of the place of worship and helping morale by letting people know that there are a group of parishioners who really care about other parishioners."

While faith is a very private part of people's lives, many want to talk about it, including their anger with the clergy sex scandal, said Marsha Haddock, also a member of the St. Thecla parish ministry. Dodge, another member of the ministry, said those ''who have stuck with the church feel like we need to reach out to those who have dropped out of the picture."

Like others, Dodge said he believes the leadership of Archbishop Sean O'Malley and last fall's victim settlement have helped Catholics begin to move past the scandal and feel better about the church's future. He praised local priests such as Sullivan, who he said has ''attacked the issues right on."

''People respond to that," Dodge said.

They have responded with financial contributions as well.

Hennessey, of St. Joseph's in Kingston, said last month's Christmas collection at the church was 10 percent higher than the year before and that weekly offerings also have grown. He said both attendance and donations had dropped by about 15 percent during ''the heat of the storm, when it seemed like 97 percent of priests were guilty and 3 percent were not, when, in reality, the opposite was true."

The Rev. Mark Hannon of St. Joseph The Worker Church in Hanson, said he believes the Catholic Church is ''far better off today than it was two years ago."

''It's stronger and more vital, and we're responding to the criminality that has occurred," he said. ''People are still hurting, but their spirit is better than it was."

Hannon, like other area Catholic leaders, said he is not worried that the potential closing of churches in the archdiocese may have a negative impact on the recent rebound in participation by some parishioners.

''Our cluster [of churches] serves growing communities," he said. ''People are coming to church, and they will continue to do so."

Joanna Massey can be reached at massey@globe.com.


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