The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church



'The people are the church'

Nurtured by traditional teachings, a priest now seeks more power for the laity

By Bella English, Globe Staff, 7/17/2002

Priests have been charged, bishops pressured to resign. But the enduring impact of the clergy sex-abuse scandal may be in the pews, where many parishioners are demanding a fundamental power shift from church leaders to the laity. With the lay empowerment group Voice of the Faithful convening in Boston Saturday, the Globe visits one suburban parish, St. Gerard Majella in Canton, where the revolution is underway. Part 2 of 3.

CANTON - The breeze that blew across the parking lot at St. Gerard Majella Church on a recent Sunday carried with it the smell of sizzling hot dogs and hamburgers, the occasional cry of a baby, and the soulful sounds of teenage girls singing contemporary hymns. The Rev. Bernard McLaughlin, his portly frame cloaked in emerald green, stepped up to the mike set up for the parish's outdoor Mass and barbecue.

At his usual rapid clip, he spoke of the Voice of the Faithful, a group of Catholics seeking greater power for the laity. ''They're a group of very dedicated people who are, I believe, doing good work. If you want to know more, there's information in your bulletin.'' In the church bulletin was a letter explaining the ''Voice'' philosophy, and in each pew was an informational packet. McLaughlin then shifted to his next announcement: The Cardinal's Appeal. ''It's a Reminder Sunday,'' he said. ''You can pick up fliers inside. Giving becomes a judgment on your part.''

The reminder took all of 10 seconds. Thunder rumbled ominously in the distance. ''I hope that's not divine disagreement,'' he quipped as his parishioners laughed.

The stark juxtaposition of the two topics - the laity and the cardinal - was obvious. It is clear that Father Mac, as he is called, is a strong supporter of the laity movement. It is equally clear that he is lukewarm - at best - on the leadership of the Catholic archdiocese, for which he has toiled for 43 years.

In the bulletin that day, he had written: ''My view on the Church crisis is focused on what permitted the crisis to happen: culture and structure are the answers. Unless they [the hierarchy] are convinced that secrecy, medievalism and haughtiness are no longer feasible, things will not improve.''

Standing near the raffle table, Pat Phalan nodded toward the priest. ''He recognizes we're all angry and embarrassed,'' she said. ''He knows there has to be more power for the women and the laity. He has allowed for a lot of discussion. I think he's very brave.'' Added her husband, Paul: ''He has kept this whole community together during this crisis.''

It has been a trying six months for parish priests in the Archdiocese of Boston. Priests who have spent years toiling in the parishes and on the streets have suddenly found their jobs much more difficult. Parishioners are angry and bewildered. Fund-raising and attendance at some churches are down. The clerical collar, once such a symbol of respect, sometimes elicits whispers and stares. Even hugging a child can get a priest a suspicious look.

Many priests, mindful of the church's expectation of obedience and loyalty, have chosen not to say much about the scandal. But others are reevaluating their own assumptions and beliefs and, for the first time, speaking out about problems they see. Their church, they believe, may never be be quite the same.

Some, like McLaughlin, hope it won't be.

Healing steps

It was Sunday, Jan. 6, and Father Mac was in the middle of his early-morning ritual: H e poured himself a cup of coffee, sat at the kitchen table in the rectory, and settled down with the newspapers. One headline jumped out at him: ''Church Allowed Abuse by Priest for Years.'' McLaughlin, 68, was stunned. He had spent more than four decades in the priesthood, all of them in greater Boston. ''It was like an earthquake,'' he says of the revelations of sexual abuse and the alleged coverup.

An activist by nature, he responded quickly. He scheduled listening sessions at which parishioners could vent their feelings. He commissioned a poll, done by a professional in his parish, which found that more than half the parish thought Cardinal Bernard F. Law should resign. (Three months later, at a meeting of lay leaders, a show of hands on the question was unanimous.) He asked speakers from outside to come in and discuss the crisis. Most of all, he sweated to keep his parish together.

It has been a long and painful process. As the scandal deepened and widened, pulling in dozens of priests and implicating the church hierarchy, McLaughlin began speaking forcefully from the pulpit and in his weekly column. His words grew progressively more blunt. In March, he wrote: ''For a long time the Archdiocese has been concerned with appearances and not reality. ... Secrecy has got to go.'' In April, as the American cardinals were meeting at the Vatican, he wrote: ''If policy changes are going to be made they must be made with the laity and certainly with women. With all due respect, a group of 10 aging men is not going to ... make a cogent change in policy.'' He spoke about the importance of women in the Catholic Church. ''If women had been listened to, this never would have happened. It's the old-boy network that kept this going.''

And then, for St. Gerard's, the crisis took its toughest turn. On May 2, The Boston Globe reported that Rev. Peter R. Frost, who was the associate pastor at St. Gerard's some 20 years ago, allegedly molested a couple of boys who worked in the rectory in the '80s. Frost eventually was transferred to parishes in Milton and Readville; in 1992, he was placed on sick leave. He is no longer affiliated with any parish. The alleged victims have hired attorneys to represent them in civil lawsuits. Frost could not be reached for comment.

Sunday was just a few days off, but a shaken McLaughlin knew he couldn't wait. He sent a letter to parishioners, assuring them he had known nothing about Frost's problems. ''I was reduced to reading about it in the Globe - an embarrassing and wrong situation,'' he wrote.

He asked a psychologist and social worker from his parish to meet with fellow parishioners. Dozens of people showed up and asked: How does one become a pedophile? How are victims affected? What should we tell our children?

Next, he helped organize a lecture series by experts in theology and canon law so that the laity could begin to understand how the Catholic Church works. In the first talk, a Holy Cross professor spoke on the authority of lay people in the church. The next, in September, will deal with sexuality and spirituality.

Today, McLaughlin's job is vastly different than a year ago. In addition to handling five weekend Masses, weddings, funerals, baptisms, parish councils, finance meetings, and the like, he is struggling, like a ship captain in a storm, to steer his congregation to safety. ''My goal is to raise the issues,'' he says. ''I try not to be offensive to those who don't agree with me.''

He did have his critics. Early on, one of the doubters was John Hynes, a longtime parishioner who wasn't satisfied with the listening sessions that St. Gerard's had offered. He started attending Mass at the liberal Paulist Center downtown. ''I was ready to shop around. I don't think Father Mac expected it would take people as long as it has to get this out of their system,'' Hynes says. But when the sessions were extended, he came back to St. Gerard's.

Today, he praises the way his parish has responded. ''Father Mac has handled this crisis with complete integrity and honesty. I believe St. Gerard's will become an example of what an empowered parish should look like.'' Indeed, Hynes has become a leading member of Voice of the Faithful.

Speaking out on controversial issues may be out of character for many priests, but not for McLaughlin, who had a talk show about religion and ethics on WEEI from 1984 to '95. ''Priests have been effectively muzzled,'' says McLaughlin, who considers himself a conservative turned moderate. ''You don't dare rock the ship. Loyalty comes first. We have produced people who aren't thinking.''

But recently, he has noticed a change. ''Priests are beginning to say they have an obligation to the people to speak out on issues.'' He has also noted another, sadder, shift: S ome of his colleagues no longer wear their clerical collars when they ''go into town.''

From the streets to the suburbs

McLaughlin was brought up in a very different Boston and a very different church. His father, a Boston firefighter, was killed in the line of duty when young Bernie was 6 years old. He grew up, as he puts it, in the ''Catholic ghettos of Charlestown and Brighton'' and never met a black person or Jew until he attended Boston Latin School.

Though his older brother Frank, an attorney, urged him to study law, McLaughlin enrolled in the seminary. The law did not appeal to him, and his choice of the priesthood is still difficult for him to explain. ''It was like diving into a mystery I didn't understand,'' he says. ''I thought it was worth going into. ... It was basically an act of faith.''

In 1959, he graduated from St. John's Seminary, which sent him on to Saint Louis University, with the understanding that he would return to teach seminarians. He received a master's in ethical philosophy and, when he went back to St. John's, was the youngest ever to teach there.

But he never felt comfortable in the closed world of the seminary. And he didn't care for ''the palazzo'' next door in Brighton, the cardinal's official residence. ''The cardinals should have moved in with the Paulists on Park Street and gotten exposure to the people.'' He rues that Law, in his view, has tended to sequester himself with aides who tell him what he wants to hear. ''It's like Nixon in the White House,'' he says. ''I think he's had terrible advice.''

After a few years of teaching, McLaughlin clamored to become a parish priest. For 23 years, he was chaplain at Our Lady of the Airways Chapel at Logan Airport; from 1983 to '95 he also presided

Chat about St. Gerard's parish and the priest abuse scandal with writer Don Aucoin at 1 p.m. today at

at Holy Redeemer in East Boston. He loved what he calls ''the nitty-gritty street work,'' away from the meetings and politics of the archdiocese. He saw hungry people on the streets and started a soup kitchen. He noticed homeless people sleeping on grates and founded the Crossroads Shelter. He was named chair of the city's Emergency Shelter Commission. Governor Edward King, an old friend who ran Massport in McLaughlin's early years at Logan, appointed him to the state Ethics Commission, where he was vice-chairman and became close to Attorney General Scott Harshbarger.

But seven years ago, McLaughlin began to feel he couldn't juggle it all. He asked to be relieved of duties at Holy Redeemer but keep the airport job. He was sent, instead, to Canton, a leafy suburb south of Boston. St. Gerard Majella is a white, middle-class parish, where the pews and plates are always full. He had misgivings: H e had never before worked in a suburban parish. Today, he says, St. Gerard's ''turned out to be a great choice.'' It's an active place with nightly meetings, from a networking group for the unemployed to a nurses group for the ill.

His work here only underscored his sense of the growing gap between the priorities, and needs, of parish life and those of the hierarchy. So, too, has his view of Law shifted. McLaughlin clearly remembers the triumphant arrival of Bernard Law as bishop of Boston in March 1984. As pastor at Logan Airport, McLaughlin arranged for a literal red-carpet welcome. The Harvard band was there, playing ''Ten Thousand Men of Harvard.'' Law was escorted off the plane by McLaughlin and Mayor Ray Flynn. ''Here was this guy, full of energy and in complete control,'' McLaughlin recalls. ''He just looked so promising.''

Defending - and prodding

On a recent morning, a woman with young children came in to see McLaughlin with a crisis of faith. What had happened to the church she grew up in, where good and evil were always defined for you? What reasons could Father Mac give her to stay in the church?

He tried. He pointed to all the good that the Catholic Church has done and reminded her that Catholics believe the sacraments are key to their salvation. ''We don't place our faith in cardinals, popes, or priests. We place our faith in God. The people are the church,'' he told her.

It is his mantra.

''I think she left realizing that what she had learned in the past is not the whole truth and nothing but the truth,'' he says. But the woman was still angry, and there was little the priest could do about that - except empathize with her. ''The pedophilia was bad enough,'' he says, ''but worse is the culture and structure that permits all of that to happen. It's just outrageous.''

For a long time, in his view, the hierarchy has been dysfunctional. ''It's the haughtiness, the arrogance. That's not the way of Jesus.'' From the pulpit, he continually pounds home the point: Ordinary people sustain the faith. ''Jesus didn't come to save the rich and the famous and the beautiful people. One of his better sayings was, `I have come not to save the righteous but to save the sinners.'''

There are other things he says, though not from the pulpit. He is not one to shy away from controversy. On Law: ''Standards have to be met, and I don't think he meets those standards.'' Priestly celibacy has ''got to go,'' and women in the priesthood ''will happen, down the road.''

Sitting in the downstairs study at the rectory he shares with a large black mutt named Barney, Father Mac says his only goal is to be a good priest, which he defines as one who ''loves God and loves people.'' But he knows his current mission is tricky: ''to express my views without turning off a lot of people.'' It seems simple enough, but when you're a man of strong opinions, it's easier said than done. Some feel the priest has been too vocal.

''I love Father Mac, he's a great priest. But I cannot say that I'm in total agreement with his approach,'' says Paul Blake, who has belonged to St. Gerard's for 20 years. ''I think you can't run the Catholic Church by polls, particularly polls that are conducted in the heat of the moment.''

Blake, 63, says that Cardinal Law has been unfairly pilloried. He sees the primary mission of a priest as ''calling people to holiness.'' Father Mac ''does attempt to do that in many ways, but I think he has himself embroiled in the political side of it, and that's a mistake.'' But Blake says he would never move to another parish: ''You grow where you are planted, and I was planted at St. Gerard's.''

Discontent with McLaughlin seems rare, however. Most signs point to growing unity in the parish. Though some other parishes have seen a drop-off in attendance and giving since the crisis began, St. Gerard's has held steady at some 1,400 people at Sunday Mass, with about $8,500 collected weekly. Some have joined the newly organized Voice of the Faithful and are trying to start a chapter at St. Gerard's.

A special bond

It's clear that Father Mac has forged a deep bond with his parishioners. Last year, when he underwent radiation for prostate cancer, parishioners took him to 38 straight days of treatments at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. (He has regular checkups and says he feels fine.) They are solicitous of him; if he seems hot, someone will make him loosen his collar. Hungry? Someone will fetch him food. They tease him about his ''high-speed airport homilies'' - at Logan, he was known for the 24-minute Mass he offered a flock with flights to catch. He teases them back.

But the kids seem to love him best of all, and the feeling is mutual. They literally burst out of the pews to greet him; he wouldn't dream of not returning their hugs. ''That's too high a price to pay,'' he says. ''Of all the different kinds of people you have, I think the kid kind are the best,'' he says.

At church the other day, McLaughlin preached about the power of love, and he wrote in the bulletin about the importance of finding the glass ''half full, not half empty.'' Even as the morning papers bore more grim news, McLaughlin managed to find a silver lining. ''This year has been the greatest challenge for me, but also the greatest opportunity,'' he says. ''Not only to right the wrongs in terms of the victims, but to correct the church in terms of its structure.''

And then he was off - off to baptize four more babies who, he hopes and believes, will be the future of a changing Catholic Church.

This story ran on page F1 of the Boston Globe on 7/17/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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