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Plainville parish shocked by death of its priest

Abuse report surfaced 2 days before

By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / January 15, 2010

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PLAINVILLE - The Rev. J. Garret Thomson, a jovial, down-to-earth priest, seemed in great spirits Jan. 3 when he said Sunday Mass at St. Martha’s Church here.

“It was a wonderful Mass,’’ said Michael Lewicki, who served as lector that morning. “I was glad to be a part of it.’’

The next day, with no notice to the parish, Thomson was placed on administrative leave by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston because of sexual-assault allegations. Thomson was found dead two days later on the bedroom floor of his home in Jaffrey, N.H.

The New Hampshire medical examiner’s office ruled that Thomson, 55, died Jan. 6 of natural causes and that high blood pressure and diabetes contributed to his death.

But some parishioners say the priest appeared to be able to control his diabetes, and they worried that Thomson’s death may have been brought on by news of the allegations.

The circumstances have added outrage to tragedy for others, who said the archdiocese kept them in the dark about the reasons for Thomson’s leave.

“There’s some real anger out there right now,’’ said Jim Denson, a parishioner and member of the local Knights of Columbus. “Oh, boy, some folks are really smoking over it.’’

The archdiocese, nine days after Thomson’s death, has not formally informed the parish why its only priest was placed on leave. Parishioners did not hear of the leave until last weekend, when Bishop John Dooher included the news in remarks from the pulpit while offering condolences about Thomson’s death.

A question-and-answer session about the leave is scheduled Wednesday at St. Martha’s. But the two-week delay between Thomson’s leave and that meeting, particularly after the secrecy that cloaked the archdiocese’s sexual-abuse scandal, has infuriated many parishioners, Denson said. “We thought, my gosh, what happened to the transparency?’’ Denson said. “Why wasn’t the rest of the parish told what was going on, so people could have a dialogue?’’

Mark Dunderdale, director of the archdiocese’s Office of Professional Standards and Oversight, said the archdiocese routinely waits for weekend Masses after an administrative leave to inform the affected parish.

Dunderdale and Kelly Lynch, an archdiocesan spokeswoman, said yesterday that Thomson had been accused of the sexual abuse of a minor. The alleged abuse occurred about 15 years ago, the church officials said. They declined to say when the charge had surfaced.

“The thing that has some parishioners upset is the correlation between the leave and the death,’’ said Raymond La Rocca, grand knight of the Knights of Columbus here. “It was a very sudden leave, he left the premises very suddenly, and his death was very sudden. That raises a lot of questions.’’

During an administrative leave, a priest is barred from performing any public part of his ministry, including saying Mass or presenting himself as a priest, Lynch said.

After being informed of the leave by Dunderdale, Thomson went to his home in Jaffrey. He was contacted there by phone by a family friend, who told police that Thomson was hoarse and vomiting the night of Jan. 5. The friend, Patricia Sweeney, planned to visit him the next day but could not reach him by phone.

Her son, Christopher of Fitchburg, also could not contact Thomson and drove to Jaffrey on the morning of Jan. 6 to check on the priest. When no one answered the door, Sweeney, who is a Maynard police officer, entered through a rear window and found Thomson lying unresponsive on the floor.

It appeared that Thomson had been sick in bed - the sheets were soiled, and a trash can had been placed at the bedside - and that he had fallen and struck his head on a closet, police reported. Emergency personnel declared him dead. No signs of foul play were seen, police said.

During interviews with police, Sweeney told authorities about the sexual-assault allegation and said that “there is a civil thing going on in that a victim is looking for money so that he can get counseling,’’ Sergeant Scott Stevens wrote in his report.

Dunderdale would not comment on that. With Thomson’s death, he said, the church’s investigation into the sexual-abuse allegation has been closed.

But some parishioners wonder whether the allegations contributed to Thomson’s death. The timing led Stevens to speculate in his report that the priest might have taken his life.

However, Stevens added in the report, no visible evidence of suicide was found. Toxicology results from Thomson’s autopsy might not be available for months.

The death has stunned St. Martha’s, where parishioners described Thomson as a warm, open, and vibrant pastor.

“He engaged with the parish in every respect,’’ La Rocca said. “And he engaged everyone, even the parishioners who did the outside work like plowing and repainting the lines in the parking lot.’’

Denson said that his three sons served as altar boys and that Thomson was a recent dinner guest at his home.

“He was the kind of priest that you hoped to have,’’ Denson said. “One of his strongest traits was a very powerful compassion. Even in giving a sermon or if someone got sick or a child died of cancer, the man would almost break into tears. That always hit me hard.’’

Thomson previously served at St. Mary Magdalen’s in Tyngsborough, St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Brighton, St. Joseph’s in Medway, Immaculate Conception in Marlborough, St. Bridget’s in Maynard, and St. Mary’s in Randolph.

In his last message on the parish website, posted shortly after Christmas, Thomson wrote of the benefits of the sacrament of penance.

“The scary part,’’ he wrote, “is in looking at oneself and admitting that I’m not perfect and that I need love to forgive me, to heal me, and to give me the inspiration of hope.’’

MacQuarrie can be reached at b_macquarrie@globe.com.