Thursday, January 10, 2008

One church topples a bishop

One church topples a bishop

EAST LONGMEADOW, Mass. — Ultimately, it wasn't a local prosecutor or an aggressive attorney for two sexual abuse victims who toppled the Catholic bishop of Springfield, Mass.
It was the people of his diocese — led by a small-town priest, an angry dad and a quiet nun — who turned the legal spotlight on Bishop Thomas Dupré. (Related story: Bishop may face abuse charges)

The rebels of St. Michael's parish inspired the mother of a man who says Dupré raped him when he was 12 to speak out, leading to an investigation that could make Dupré the first bishop to face criminal charges for sexually abusing minors.

This is a tale of a letter, of a moral action conducted by collection basket, of a victim willing to talk once he found a community willing to listen.

For two years, the national spotlight has been on crowds in Boston protesting their disgraced archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law, for protecting known abusive priests. "Boston" became shorthand for the crisis that engulfed the church.

But 90 miles west, the 250,000 Catholics in this diocese also felt the corrosive effect of church leaders who failed, or refused, to see and to stop the abuse. A recent report by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice found 4% of U.S. priests abused 10,667 children and teens in the last half-century. That includes 30 priests accused of abusing 70 children and teens since 1950 in Springfield.

In May 2002, long before those statistics were known, three people said "Enough": the Rev. James Scahill, 56, pastor of 2,000-member St. Michael's parish, seven miles southeast of Springfield; Warren Mason, 48, a marketing expert and father of three sons; and the nun who introduced them, Sister Mary McGeer, 63, who works with parish families.

The nun, grieving at the prospect of angry parents pulling their children out of her church, took a vehement letter from Mason to Scahill days after he took over the parish post. At Mason's urging, Scahill asked parishioners to set aside the 6% of their collections that normally goes to the diocese — and thus could be used to fund support payments for abusive priests who have been removed from ministry.

Scahill has been vilified by church officials for this action ever since. But it brought Mason — and 30% more of the town's Catholics — back to Sunday Mass.

And it created a climate where first one man, then another, sought to press charges against Dupré after two decades of silence.

Last month, Dupré abruptly resigned at age 70, citing his health. Media reports say he has been at a psychiatric institute in Maryland known for treating sexual disorders. He quit the day after a local newspaper asked him about sex with two boys. Among the paper's sources: an alleged victim's mother who called after talking with Scahill.

Last week, Hampden County district attorney William Bennett announced he would go to a grand jury with evidence that Dupré sexually abused the two victims and may have concealed records to protect other predatory priests in the diocese. Dupré's attorney said Wednesday that the bishop will have "no comment."

Last Sunday, an ordinary Sunday morning Mass at St. Michael's was as packed as Easter Sunday.

Every week, the red-brick church's pews overflow with grannies, dads, gurgling babies, restless tots on moms' laps. Teens and latecomers lean against the walls.

The Mason family is there once more. A lifelong Catholic with three sons baptized at St. Michael's, Mason, 48, quit attending Mass in March 2002 after he saw cardinals equivocating on TV over what to do about abusive priests.

"All parents ... should feel appalled and scared at the spin these church leaders are applying to criminal and immoral acts," he wrote to Scahill's predecessor. "My faith in God remains stronger than ever! Conversely, my belief in the (church) ... has been shattered."

The pastor didn't reply. But McGeer was struck by Mason's plea for parish priests to speak up: "Where are their voices now?"

She knows all about silent voices. Nuns' voices have rarely been heard in the Catholic hierarchy, says McGeer, 63, a Sister of St. Joseph who entered the teaching order 46 years ago.

"If we had been where decisions are made about parish assignments or dealing with abuse charges, this whole scandal would never have happened. We give our lives for children," she says.

She's not a ring-the-alarm-bell activist. Her work has always been home to home, heart to heart, a steadying arm of faith in difficult times. At Mass, she's the one cheerfully herding 150 "little angels" into their own special classes.

But in spring 2002, "I had parents in the parish for years, like Mason, who were going to take their children away," she recalls, eyes brimming with tears.

That prompted McGeer to her own kind of action: She held on to Mason's letter and gave it to Scahill when he arrived in early May. He called Mason immediately.

"I told him I wouldn't put more money in the collection basket as long as it was being used by Dupré to subsidize pedophiles," Mason recalls. He cites one notorious priest, Richard Lavigne, who pleaded guilty to abusing two altar boys in 1992. The diocese has paid a $1.4 million settlement to 17 victims so far. Dupré announced in January that Lavigne had been defrocked, but he's still on the diocese payroll.

"The church can claim they support these abusers out of canon law and charity, but I say bull-(expletive)! It's just walking-around money for perverts! They use that money to groom their victims," Mason says. The John Jay report found nearly 39% of abusive priests enticed victims with alcohol or drugs.

Mason asked Scahill: "How many kids have been abused while Dupré coddled abusers? How long can we allow this?"

Scahill was unaccustomed to challenging church authority. He went directly from high school to seminary and then, at age 27, to the priesthood, "the only profession where young men who have done nothing can be treated like princes." His first post as a senior pastor, in 1988, was the parish where Lavigne had served.

"It took a lot of jolts to knock me out of the box of clerical culture where privilege and power are more important than love and service," Scahill says.

The first jolts: meeting Lavigne's victims. The final jolt: meeting Mason, who hatched the "6% plan." The parish normally sent 9% of collections to Springfield: 3% for education and 6% to the general fund. When Scahill called on the parish to put that money in escrow (now more than $50,000 in a local bank), "they rose and applauded," the priest says.

"People want their priests to stand up and tell them they have the power to make change," says Mason.

That power, Scahill says, jabbing his index finger at Mason, "you damn well better remember, Warren, was not yours. It was not mine. It was God's!"

Dupré blasted Scahill in public and private. The diocese vocations director blamed him for no new applicants for the priesthood last year. There were no calls from brother priests asking, "How are ya holding up, Jim?" says Scahill.

He's given to quoting the Mass for martyrs and the Prophet Micah, who urges, "Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly before your God." The prophet says nothing about calling your bishop a liar to his face. But Scahill, secure in his faith and the support of the people of St. Michael's, did that, too.

And word of the stand-up parish rippled throughout Massachusetts through an onslaught of letters and e-mails from Mason.

Then came a stunning surprise that justified all their efforts, the priest says.

Last October, a local woman who had heard of the parish's actions contacted him saying her son and one of his teenage buddies, both now in their 40s, had been abused by Dupré himself when her son was 12 and his friend was 15.

She encouraged her son to talk with Scahill. The man contacted his old friend and fellow victim in California. Their attorney, Roderick MacLeish Jr., says the man was angered that Dupré spoke out against gay marriage "while Dupré's own sheets were dirty."

In November, Scahill called Archbishop of Boston Sean O'Malley's private office and left a message, saying he needed to speak with him about a "dire" matter in Springfield. He called Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly's office with the same message.

The archdiocese never called back. A spokesman says they have found no record of the call, that it may have been dismissed as a "crank call."

Reilly, however, was at St. Michael's within hours. Within four months, Bennett, the local prosecutor, announced his plan to go to the grand jury. On Tuesday, the Vatican named a New York auxiliary bishop, Timothy McDonnell, 66, to head the Springfield diocese.

And next week, the Masses at St. Michael's will be full — again.

"The people of God gave their church over to their clerics. Now they are taking it back," says Scahill. "A great thing is happening."

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