The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


Outspoken Newton priest gets ovation

By Benjamin Gedan, Globe Correspondent, 12/9/2002

NEWTON - In a dramatic display of support for the Rev. Walter H. Cuenin, the outspoken priest whose Newton parish was banned last week from holding official archdiocesan activities, more than 850 parishioners attended the 10 a.m. Mass yesterday, applauding their pastor as he railed against Cardinal Bernard F. Law.

''I say hooray for Father Cuenin,'' Penny Hoarty, 57, a parishioner, said as she arrived for Mass. ''He deserves all the support.''

Emboldened by two standing ovations and the high turnout - more than double the recent attendance figures - Cuenin delivered a scathing homily, criticizing Law for hiding ''behind lawyers and bankruptcy.''

''The action toward our faith community is hard to accept. There is anger and frustration. It makes us question our faith,'' Cuenin told the packed church, where worshipers stood shoulder to shoulder. ''We are walking in darkness. It's like we are in exile.''

Law instituted the ban last Tuesday after Cuenin announced a meeting at Our Lady Help of Christians Church during which priests were to air reservations about the archdiocese's fund-raising drive. The pastor has previously been criticized by the archdiocese for his position on homosexuality and the ordination of women, opinions he articulated in a September article in The New Yorker.

Law has not given a reason for the ban, nor responded to a letter from Cuenin seeking an explanation. His spokeswoman, Donna M. Morrissey, declined to identify Law's reasoning.

If Law's decision to chastise the parish was aimed at quashing dissent, however, it appears to have had the opposite effect. Our Lady's has been deluged with phone calls and e-mails of support since Law's surprise announcement, said MaryEllen Cocks, a pastoral associate. And after yesterday's 10 a.m. Mass, parishioners queued outside, waiting to offer encouragement, and a warm embrace, to their embattled priest.

''I believe in what he's doing,'' said Roberta Pavia, 49, who has worshiped at Our Lady's for 15 years. ''He is making it at least more palatable to be a Catholic.''

Describing Cuenin as a plainspoken, principled figure, parishioners said they had long admired his message of tolerance of gays and of other religions. His leadership during the sex abuse crisis, they said, has been characteristically controversial.

Joe Keefe, 55, who attended elementary school at Our Lady's, praised Cuenin's pointed remarks. ''He's speaking for everyone,'' Keefe said. ''People feel alienated by this horrible crisis.''

The Parish Pastoral Council also delivered a stinging address, calling Law's decision to punish Our Lady's ''totally misdirected.'' In a statement read during all four services over the weekend, council member Jane Frantz offered ''unconditional support'' for Cuenin and said the council, the church's 15-person governing board, was ''outraged and saddened'' by Law's actions.

''Our Lady's is a thriving faith community that should be a source of great pride for the archdiocese,'' Frantz said. ''It is clear that the cardinal is unable and unwilling to provide the strong leadership this archdiocese needs.''

Clad in the purple vestments of Advent, Cuenin stood in the church courtyard after Mass - the spot where Boston Catholics greeted Mother Teresa in 1995 - and listed the services Our Lady's has provided the archdiocese over the last decade.

In his address from the pulpit, Cuenin drew exuberant applause when he surveyed the sprawling crowd and said, ''This is what happens when you get banned in Newton.''

Though the church, located off the Mass. Pike, has hosted dozens of fund-raisers and other official functions, Cuenin said he now feels ''under attack.''

''It's a slap in the face by the diocese,'' he said of the ban. ''It should be reversed.''

This story ran on page A14 of the Boston Globe on 12/9/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

For complete coverage of the priest abuse scandal, go to