The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


A loyal flock

Accused priest's good works, straight talk win support

By Michael Rosenwald , Globe Staff, 2/27/2002

LOWELL - From taxi drivers to the fire chief, from a recovered alcoholic to a lapsed Catholic who recently returned to God, people here rallied yesterday around a man they call Spags.

That would be the Rev. D. George Spagnolia, recently suspended because of sex allegations from St. Patrick's Church, a small, poorly funded parish tucked between this down-on-its-luck city's largest set of housing projects.

St. Patrick's lawn may be littered with trash and teenagers copping heroin may be prowling the sidewalks, but for decades the Irish and Greeks and Germans and Cambodians have come to this neighborhood seeking hope and a first shot at the American dream.

Now they are demanding justice. Like their pastor, they are using quintessential American phrases such as ''due process,'' ''innocent until proven guilty,'' and ''fight the power.'' A sign outside the church reads, ''There is no due process in Cardinal's Law.''

''This is not right. Not right,'' said Elly Torres, who immigrated to Lowell from Cuba in the 1960s to work in the mills. ''He is a good man, a good man. You knock on his door - knock, knock, knock - anytime, and he helps you. A good man.''

Spagnolia, with his smooth bald head, generous cheeks, and somewhat crooked teeth, has captivated the community in the four years he's been here. Asked why hundreds turned out to support him on Monday, Spags said, ''Must be my pretty face.''

He also speaks their language. Spagnolia doesn't call Cardinal Bernard F. Law his holiness. He calls him his boss. When Spags talks about being wronged, he brings up the idea of a union.

And when he speaks of support from fellow clergymen, he says they thanked him for having the guts to do this - though his word choice included a different part of the male anatomy.

''That's Father Spags,'' said Lowell Fire Chief William Desrosiers. ''He says it as it is. He always has. He has every bit of independence. He believes in himself and he believes in his faith.''

The fire chief, along with others, said Spagnolia had done so much for the community - restoring people's faith in God, increasing food vouchers, renovating the church's basement - that they can't abandon him now, especially when they believe he's innocent.

''He'd give you the money out of his own pocket,'' Torres said.

''He is the best priest I have ever encountered,'' said a 77-year-old parishioner named Ann, who declined to give her last name but said that Spagnolia had helped restore her faith. ''I pray with him every morning. We pray for all the sinners in the world, and we have a lot of work to do.''

''I'm not in love with him,'' she added, ''but we all love him.''

Patrick Smith, 63, a retiree who lives in the projects, said Spagnolia is so singularly important to the parish that if he doesn't return, the church is history.

''This church will be done,'' Smith said. ''If he goes, it will go. That would be disastrous.''

Spagnolia frequently walks through areas of the projects that have been infested with drugs for quite some time. If the weather's nice, Spagnolia wears shorts and a T-shirt, maybe some sandals.

''He's a politician,'' Smith said - in a positive way. ''He knows what he's doing. He knows the church needs things and he gets it.''

He's famous for cooking seven-course meals, but ''he never invited me,'' Smith said. ''He cooks for the politicians.''

Father Spagnolia's appeal clearly crosses cultural lines.

Among the signs on St. Patrick's front doors, one in Vietnamese was next to one declaring, ''We stand by you!''

''The beauty of this church is that it's always been faithful to this city's immigrant heritage,'' Spagnolia said. ''They feel comfortable here, and I'm glad for that.''

Because of his loyalty to the church's mission, the suspended priest also said he had garnered ''the credibility of the people.'' If there can be any good from the accusations against him, Spagnolia said he hopes ''this causes more Catholic people to take possession of their church.''

In Lowell, they already have.

''These people go to him as their confessor,'' said Louis Kliros, who has driven a Lowell cab off and on for nearly 50 years. ''He's their friend in time of need. He does things for them when they need help. To have him go, that would be a big blunder by the church.''

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 2/27/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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