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BRIAN MCGRORY

Smear tactics

Let's see if I have this right. The Catholic Church is facing a severe shortage of priests. Sunday Mass is so empty it's starting to look like a meeting of the Cambridge Republican Club. The contribution basket has been coming up nearly empty.

So what does Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley do? Here's exactly what he does: He fires the popular pastor at one of the most successful parishes in the entire state, a rare church constantly filled with communicants, bustling with weddings, brimming with christenings, welcoming to people of all types. A priest who should be held up as an example is cut down in shame.

But that's not all. Rather than be up front with parishioners, rather than explain that the Rev. Walter Cuenin is being relieved of his Newton post because his views on hot-button topics such as homosexuality and women differ markedly with those of Catholic leaders, rather than just admit that Cuenin was never a favorite among higher-ups because he was so critical of the church during the sex scandal, O'Malley chose a markedly different path. He chose to smear Cuenin for driving a parish-funded, parish-approved lease car.

That's right: After silently shuffling pedophiles from one town to another to prey on fresh batches of children, the archdiocese is finally cracking down on wayward priests -- for driving Hondas.

Honestly, I want to think nice things about the Catholic Church and its leaders. I want to report that the Boston Archdiocese has turned the proverbial corner, that it understands the horror of its recent past and is looking to make amends with the people who need its ministry most.

I want to write nice things about the hundreds of achingly selfless nuns and priests who feed the hungry and shelter the indigent and guide so many poor souls who inevitably get lost along the way. They do this every single day.

But O'Malley and his insipid advisers, leftovers from Cardinal Bernard F. Law's long reign of incompetence and malevolence, make this somewhere beyond hard.

How hard? Consider, for a moment, one of the most active and devout Catholics in town, Peter Meade, the chairman of Catholic Charities, a guy so virtuous he can make you feel guilty just by contrast. When I called him yesterday, he was sputtering, he was that angry. ''I don't know how we can afford to lose good pastors," Meade said. ''But if this church has a problem with a pastor, they ought to deal with that, rather than this incredible stretch of having a parish think that because their priest leased a Honda, that it's some sort of egregious sin."

Quietly, archdiocesan leaders have warned Catholic Charities not to expect any church contribution to the upcoming budget. That amounts to a million dollars that now goes toward food pantries, homeless shelters, immigrant programs, and the like. Gone.

Still, it comes to my attention that the archdiocese was able to find $687,000 recently to buy a house in West Roxbury on behalf of Richard Bradford, a former Episcopal priest who left his church in a dispute and was ordained as a Catholic priest under Cardinal Law in 1998, despite being married.

Bradford and his wife were apparently displaced when church property was sold to Boston College. One logical option would have been to assign them to one of the little-used rectories in the area. But Terry Donilon, a spokesman for the Boston Archdiocese, said, ''Since he's married, you can't do that."

Why not? Because that's the way it is. Walter Cuenin gets canned for driving a Honda while the church buys a favored priest an expensive new place to live. Any real estate agent will tell you that $687,000 still gets an awful lot of house in West Roxbury.

Of course, none of it, absolutely none of it, should come as any surprise. The same collection of incompetents who locked a bunch of children out of their grammar school in Brighton now smear and fire a popular priest in Newton.

What's next?

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.

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