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Kevin Cullen

Catholic values without the church

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / January 23, 2011

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Kathy Picard grew up in the 16 Acres section of Springfield and, like every other Catholic kid on her block, she went to Mass every Sunday.

She wanted to go to Springfield’s Cathedral High School in the worst way, but her parents couldn’t afford it. So she got a job waiting tables at a Friendly’s and put herself through Cathedral.

She says it was at Cathedral that her Catholic values were cemented: that she had an obligation to help others, the poor, the weak, the vulnerable.

Cathedral is a great school and has produced great people, and each year they hand out something called the St. Joseph Medal to recognize the religious, lay workers, and alumni of the school who have, as the school puts it, “lived outstanding lives that reflect the values of Cathedral High School.’’

Picard, Class of 1981, was nominated for a St. Joseph Medal this year, and it’s easy to see why.

When she was a girl, she was sexually abused for many years by a family member. By the time she was old enough to realize what had been done to her, the statute of limitations against her abuser had expired.

So Picard decided to help others avoid her fate. She became one of the most dedicated advocates for abuse victims in Massachusetts. She founded a nonprofit advocacy group, Little Voices Matter, and became an outspoken supporter of legislative efforts to extend the statute of limitations in cases in which children are sexually abused.

After the clergy sexual abuse scandal that exploded in Boston in 2002, in which so many abusers avoided prosecution because of antiquated laws, Picard and her legislative allies succeeded in extending the statute of limitations but not eliminating it. She fights on.

All of which is why it made perfect sense for Picard to be nominated for a St. Joseph Medal.

According to Cathedral’s policy for the St. Joseph Medal, “the selection committee reviews nominations to ensure that the nominees have met one or more of the following criteria:

Excelled in their professional life.

Made the community we live in a better place through their service.

Made an outstanding commitment to the Cathedral High School community.

Exemplified Catholic values in their life.

Displayed good citizenship.’’

You could argue that Picard met not just one, but all of the criteria. But when someone from Cathedral called Picard to verify where she went to Mass and to which parish she gave her weekly collection envelopes, Picard told them she doesn’t go to Mass and doesn’t give money to the church.

It is, she says, an act of conscience.

“I consider myself a good Catholic because I practice the Catholic values I was taught,’’ she said. “But I cannot support the institutional church, or go to Mass, given the way that the church and especially the hierarchy covered up the abuse of children.’’

And so, see you later, St. Joseph Medal.

I wanted to hear Cathedral’s take on this, but no one at the school called me back. Mark Dupont, a spokesman for the Diocese of Springfield, said Cathedral “is a diocesan managed school, and their policies flow from diocesan policy.’’

But he said the criteria for the St. Joseph Medal are set by the school.

“I don’t think you should draw a negative inference here, because from what you’re telling me, she has done valuable, important work,’’ Dupont said. “But in any award for specific Catholic actions, church participation is an implied and understood requirement.’’

Except it isn’t listed anywhere in the criteria.

Picard said the local Knights of Columbus have hosted her children’s safety events, at which kids are taught how to be wary of potential abusers and what to do if they are approached.

“The Knights of Columbus are good Catholics, and they never asked me if I went to Mass before hosting my events,’’ Picard said. “They just want to protect children. That’s what I want to do. That’s what Jesus would do.’’

Picard has won awards before. In 2006, she got the Unsung Heroine award from the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women. Two years later, Governor Deval Patrick gave her a citation for her work.

“Awards are nice if they call attention to the issue of protecting children and helping survivors, but this isn’t about whether I get a St. Joseph Medal,’’ Picard said. “It’s about being denied the award for the wrong reason, for not attending church and giving money. There’s an enormous amount of hypocrisy here.’’

This, after all, is the same diocese whose previous bishop and titular head of Cathedral, Thomas Dupre, had to resign seven years ago after it emerged he had sexually abused two teenage boys. They shipped Dupre out of town, but he’s a retired bishop and still on the payroll.

“I’m sure Bishop Dupre still goes to Mass,’’ Picard said. “Does that make him a good Catholic?’’

Picard has spent her adult life trying to protect children. She has made lives better, given voice to survivors, helped healing.

She put aside her own suffering to help some of the most vulnerable, and if she doesn’t exemplify Catholic values, who does?

Come to think of it, they shouldn’t give Picard a medal.

They should make her a bishop.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com