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Spotlight Report

Wary on abuse but hopeful, Catholics return to church

By Yvonne Abraham, Globe Staff, 3/2/2004

Paul Desharnais, a parishioner at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Jamaica Plain, was so angry about clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, so appalled by its scale and duration, that he wanted to make a statement. Some of his fellow parishioners had decided to stay away from church after the first revelations in 2002. But Desharnais had been a part of the parish since 1961, and, after all those years, leaving wasn't an option. Instead, he stopped dropping dollars into the collection basket.

"It was a way to protest the church's stance of more or less protecting their position and their inactivity," said Desharnais, 65, leaving St. Thomas Church after the 4 p.m. Mass Saturday.

But now he is giving again.

After two years of tumult and anger, he and other parishioners are reconnecting with St. Thomas and other parishes in the archdiocese. Church pews are fuller. More money is collected. Priests are feeling more hopeful and less like objects of suspicion. The resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law, whom parishioners criticized as imperious and self-serving; the installation last summer of Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley; and the settlement of claims by abuse victims have been turning points.

But while they are returning to their parish, many who attended services at the imposing brick church on South Street last weekend are still wary of the church hierarchy and less trusting in its moral authority. They believe that their church will never be what it once was and that that might not be all bad.

"The lay folk are a little bit like somebody who has been very badly hurt in a marriage which they totally trusted for a long time, and now they're dating again," said the Rev. Jack Rathschmidt, a Capuchin priest and guardian of the San Lorenzo friary in Jamaica Plain. "There was a separation, and I think many just said: `This is awful. I don't want anything to do with it.' And then they missed something in their lives. They're taking a look again, but they're not rushing back and just saying it's all like it never happened. They're anxious and tentative and questioning and wanting."

That unease remains, in part, because these are still turbulent times for area Catholics. The abuse scandal continues, fueled by last week's official reports detailing the scale of the problem and by new allegations against Bishop Thomas L. Dupre, former head of the Springfield Diocese. Financial troubles are forcing the closing of churches across the archdiocese, creating anxiety in congregations that aren't sure whether the churches in which they were baptized and married, including St. Thomas, will survive the consolidations. And church leaders have taken an aggressive role in the emotional debate over gay marriage, galvanizing many of the faithful on the issue, but also sowing disquiet among the minority who disagree with that stance.

"This is a hopeful time, but it is a tough time," said Joe Geary, who was married in St. Thomas Church in 1983 and was back visiting from Andover Sunday. "The new archbishop is trying to chart a course. Cardinal Law was denying what was going on and hiding inside his mansion. The new archbishop is humble. But this is a tough time for the Catholic Church. A lot of Catholics have been alienated."

Still, to many, the improvement is unmistakable. Cypriana Slosky, a cantor who has sung in front of the congregation for years, has seen more and more faces over the last few months. She said she still feels angry about the abuse scandal, but also hopeful for the future of her church.

"I think about all the things going on in the diocese, and that is still a part of me, but I'm very optimistic people are working together to make the church stronger than before," she said.

The Rev. John Sheridan, who is filling in at St. Thomas while the Rev. Gerald D. Perno seeks treatment for alcohol abuse, said his parishioners and those he sees in other churches "have turned a very important corner."

"I do see a new enthusiasm; that is really clear," Sheridan said. "It seems like everybody is refocusing, and it's really encouraging to see it. Archbishop O'Malley has been so wonderfully encouraging to everybody. He has [dealt] with the issues uprightly and in a just manner, and I think that is sort of like ripples in a pond. It has really made an impact on the priests and the faithful."

Some at St. Thomas remain devoted to the parish in spite of the church hierarchy, however, not because of it. On Sunday morning, the church basement was crowded as parishioners gathered for coffee and doughnuts, as they do after the 10 a.m. Sunday Mass. Adults sat at tables, while children ran around them, doughnuts in hand. Sheridan, dressed in the purple robes of Lent, looked on approvingly.

Members of the congregation were full of praise for Perno, who they said had made St. Thomas a welcoming place for families and for those whose beliefs diverge from official church teachings on social issues.

Diana Reddick, 42, a mother of four, said she had come back to the church after about a decade away because of her children. Every time Perno preached, "it seemed like he talked to me." Reddick said. "He's so generous."

Reddick said she was appalled at the church's secretiveness about sexual abuse by priests. She also disagrees with the church's teaching on divorce, and on gay marriage.

"I never liked the politics of the church," Reddick said. "If I thought about it, I'd probably be Episcopalian. But I come to church for the religious side, and not the politics."

Pointing to a group of children crouched around a board game, Helen Dajer, 46, said, "To us, the church is about this." Dajer and others are concerned that the church closings are pitting parishes against one another. Last year, approximately 650 people attended Mass at St. Thomas each week, about the same number that attend at Jamaica Plain's other two Catholic churches. But, unlike at the other two, more funerals were performed at St. Thomas than baptisms; according to the diocese, there were 18 baptisms and 58 funerals last year. Dajer is worried that groups like Voice of the Faithful, formed to give the laity a bigger voice in the church during the abuse scandal, are not playing enough of a part in directing the church in its aftermath.

"The whole thing could be used as a message of hope and rebuilding," said Dajer, a nurse-midwife. "It could be a springboard for opening up a conversation on the priesthood and what that actually means. If there was a time to remake the priesthood, that time is now. Voice of the Faithful has been pushing that agenda for some time, but people don't seem interested."

For Mary McDonough and Estelle Brennan, the priesthood is not the problem. They are happy the church is fighting gay marriage ("Why do they have to put it in our faces?" McDonough said of gays and lesbians). They both lament the abuse scandal.

"It makes me ill, to think they would bother little children," McDonough said. "They were full of the devil."

For five years during the 1970s, John J. Geoghan, the serial pedophile who was moved from parish to parish for years, was assigned as a priest to St. Andrew's in Jamaica Plain, where McDonough's children were altar boys. They "made fun of his walk," she said. But she never had any inkling of the crimes of which he was accused. Even if they had known, both women said, it would not have been enough to separate them from their church.

"Older people stick to their religion," said McDonough, who, like Brennan, has been attending Mass at St. Thomas since 1934. "I thought it was so ridiculous. Some people said they're not going to church anymore. You can't give up your religion for a few bad apples."

McDonough and Brennan, who were chatting in the church parking lot long after 4 p.m. Mass on Saturday, were nostalgic for the church's heyday.

"Oh, the people!" Brennan said. "If you went to the 11:30 Mass and you weren't there early, you couldn't get in. You were down on the stairs outside with the others. You'd have your hat and your white gloves, it would be 90 in the shade, but you'd have your gloves on. The congregation is so much smaller now, and older."

But while some see plenty of reasons to stay at St. Thomas, others are still struggling.

For Judy Brown, it has been difficult to keep coming since the abuse scandal. She believes that even priests who didn't abuse children themselves allowed those who did to continue, and now she doesn't trust any of them.

"I am just devastated," she said. "I just feel that the whole thing is a sham. I still certainly believe in God, but I just no longer believe in these priests. I go to Mass now, and I see a priest saying Mass, and I say to myself, `Why am I listening to him?' "

Every week she leaves Mass early and decides she has attended for the last time, and every week she goes back.

"I don't know why," said Brown, 59. "It's because of the old routines. But it doesn't have any meaning to me anymore, and it's kind of shocking to me that it doesn't have any meaning anymore. Priests were awesome to me. You would bow to them. They were so high. But over the past six or nine months, I have been asking myself, `What am I doing here?' "


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