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Spotlight Report

  Adrian Walker  

The children must be first

9/22/2003

Mark Damian Panicoli of Beverly isn't trying to start a movement. Mostly, he's just a father still wrestling with what to tell his children about the clergy sex abuse scandal, a lifelong congregant who isn't sure he's ready to return to Mass.

Despite all the kudos garnered by Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley for his quick work in settling with abuse victims, Panicoli remains unconvinced that his church has done enough to rectify the conditions that made the scandal possible. He doesn't believe the church's leadership has listened enough to the laity. An altar boy for eight years as a youth, he remains hurt -- and angry.

"The church is not the proprietorship of the religion," he says. "They were given a stewardship, and obviously the stewardship has gone awry."

In response, Panicoli has drafted what might be considered one man's manifesto. Called the "Children First Reform Charter," it combines questions for the church's hierarchy with recommendations for reform, ranging from counseling sessions for victims to allowing the clergy to marry.

"I asked myself three questions," he said. "How would I feel if these [victims] were my children? If I don't get personally involved as a parent, who would? And what example am I setting for my children by my silence?"

Considering the past two years of controversy, it's not surprising many of Panicoli's concerns are not original. Many are similar to issues raised by Voice of the Faithful, which formed in response to the scandal. Still, they reflect the gnawing frustration that he feels, and that he believes many other Catholics share. He worries that some people are too quick to believe the church has turned the corner.

"This crisis is like an open wound that has to be cleansed before it can be healed," the charter states. "This can only happen with the collective efforts of the laity throughout the world coming together as one voice to make these changes a reality."

As for the recent settlement, Panicoli said he sees the crisis as a spiritual issue, rather than a financial one. He is concerned that it will halt efforts to attain full disclosure of past abuses. He dismisses it as "a chain of events to go back to business as usual."

"The settlements are great, but I don't think the church can atone for its sins just by paying out money."

Panicoli said he has not felt entirely comfortable raising his concerns within his own parish. So he turned to a clergyman in a different denomination for spiritual guidance.

He sought counsel from the Rev. Gregory Groover of Charles Street AME Church in Roxbury, whom he knew from a business dealing. Groover advised him to address his concerns about the church hierarchy publicly, instead of simply suppressing them.

"What really struck my attention was the fact that he is doing this as a parent," Groover said. "We hear a lot from the politicians, and the victims -- but what about parents, especially young parents who have children and are very much involved in the church? I think the church needs to say something to them, and that's where Mark is coming from."

Panicoli hopes other Catholics will embrace his ideas about keeping up pressure for reform in the church. He believes all clergy, including bishops, who had any role in the abuse of children should be defrocked, including those who approved transfers that allowed predators to elude punishment. And he believes the makeup of the clergy itself needs reform. Citing a 1980 papal ruling that allows married Episcopal clergy to serve as Catholic priests, he believes the priesthood should be open to married men.

Perhaps most radically, he believes the laity should have a far greater role in what decisions are made about dealing with the long-term effects of the crisis.

"It's our religion," he said. "It's our moral obligation to speak out."

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.


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