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Spotlight Report

Priest castigates Springfield diocese for abuse dealings

By Douglas Belkin, Globe Staff, 2/17/2003

EAST LONGMEADOW - Saying the Roman Catholic Church is ''laden like a boil that needs to be lanced,'' a popular pastor demanded from his pulpit yesterday that the Diocese of Springfield take a more aggressive approach to the sexual abuse crisis and stop financially supporting a priest convicted of molesting boys.

The Rev. James J. Scahill garnered sustained applause from the pews at St. Michael's Parish after reading aloud from a letter he wrote to Bishop Thomas L. Dupre condemning Dupre's handling of the convicted priest. Scahill characterized himself as far from a firebrand, but said he is "convinced of the correctness of the stand every time I look at a child."

Dupre has "accused me of being disobedient and I've told him there's no virtue to obedience that requires one to suppress one's conscience," Scahill said after Mass. "The kind of obedience he's looking for is the obedience of the soldiers of Hitler -- a blind, myopic obedience. So I've stepped outside of that. It's been horrific clerically -- I've lost friends," he said. "But that's a minor cost."

Scahill's objections center on the diocese's support of the Rev. Richard Lavigne, convicted of molesting two boys. He also opposes the church's plans to seek dismissal of 19 sexual abuse lawsuits on grounds of the constitutional separation of church and state.

Lavigne was arrested in 1991 and charged with five counts of sexual abuse. He pleaded guilty in 1992 to molesting two boys; the other charges were dropped. He was sentenced to a rehabilitation facility for several months, then placed on 10 years' probation.

In the 1990s, the diocese settled suits for $1.4 million with 17 men who accused Lavigne of abusing them when they were minors.

Though the diocese began the process of defrocking Lavigne about two months ago, it will continue to pay him $1,000 a month and cover an $8,000 medical and dental package, Scahill said.

Dupre has said that the diocese's continued financial support of Lavigne is mandated by canon law, a rationale Scahill took issue with yesterday from the pulpit.

"I remain unconvinced that the Holy Spirit of God and the will of Jesus Christ would endorse a manmade canon so protective of a multiple-offending abusive cleric ... so abusive to his victims and so unprotective of innocent children," Scahill said.

Diocese spokesman Michael Graziano said he could not comment on Scahill's message and referred calls to Monsignor Richard S. Sniezyk, the diocese's vicar general. Sniezyk did not return a phone call yesterday.

"The bishops are spending more time with their lawyers than with their consciences," Scahill said. "There's now the effort to dismiss lawsuits on the constitutional grounds of the separation of church and state. I hold God to be superior to the state. I don't hold the institutional church to be superior to justice. It's made me ashamed to be a Catholic."

As his parishioners filed out of Mass, many warmly congratulated Scahill, 55, and several said they feared he would be suspended or moved from the diocese because of his views.

"When he started talking I almost thought he was going to say they were reassigning him. I really did, I thought he was out of here," said parishioner Andrew McGrath. "But as far as I'm concerned, he's replaced Superman -- he's my new hero."

Scahill took over at St. Mary's in Springfield after Lavigne, and held that post for 14 years before coming to St. Michael's in May. Upon his arrival to this affluent suburb, he was confronted by parents who were "upset as much with the immobility and the ineptitude of the hierarchy as with the pedophiles," he said yesterday.

Just a month after his arrival, and with the approval of the church's board, Scahill began withholding 6 percent of the collection -- the amount that usually goes to the diocese -- because of his parishioners' displeasure with the bishop. The highly publicized stand, in a parish of 2,000 families, took a severe emotional toll on him, Scahill said yesterday. At a retreat in Maine last year, several priests shunned him, and Dupre has threatened to suspend him, Scahill said.

Despite those warnings, Scahill said yesterday that the Catholic clergy have become too quick to "go along to get along" and to "protect the institution at all costs."

"In some real way, we're the last of the landed gentry," Scahill said. "They give us beautiful houses to live in, housekeepers to clean. Who else has that? ... I think priests have become content with their little fiefdoms and they don't want to risk that, and I think that's the reason for the silence.

"I think there needs to be other voices out there," he said. "A healthy church requires change."

Douglas Belkin can be reached at dbelkin@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 2/17/2003.
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