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Spotlight Report

  Charlestown Rev. Bob Bowers with kids from the Charlestown Catholic Elementary School behind his parish, St. Catherine's of Sienna. (Globe Staff Photo / Suzanne Kreiter)

After sex abuse scandals, many priests tread warily

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 1/13/2002

Bob Bowers tries to be a good priest. He loves his work, his community, his church, and his God. He has wrestled with the demons of frustration and loneliness, but still chokes up as he describes the joy he feels every Sunday morning when he walks to the Charlestown Navy Yard and prays as the rising sun glows over a sleepy skyline.

And he loves children. Listening to the cries of a parishioner's newborn baby. Tossing a ball with the second-graders at the parish school. Fielding the questions from teenagers wondering what it all means.

"Sometimes it's heartbreaking. Last week, I had to go and pray with a group of fourth-grade hockey players whose coach had just dropped dead on the bench," said the 41-year-old pastor of Saint Catherine of Siena Church in Charlestown. "But there is a lot of joy in the middle of some rough stuff. People are fun, and there is lots of goodness, lots of nice, wonderful, people, all the time."

Years ago, when a children's program would end at church, kids would pile into Bowers' car and he would drive them home. Sometimes he would stay up into the early morning in the rectory, allowing adolescents to pour their hearts out over the crises of the teen years.

That was before Bowers had ever heard of James R. Porter, or John J. Geoghan. Before he could imagine that someday a friend would return from a Halloween party shocked that someone showed up dressed as a pedophile priest. Before he began to wonder how people saw him, whether they were comfortable entrusting him with their kids.

The crisis of clergy sexual abuse has taken an enormous toll on the Catholic Church, harming victims and their families and shattering the faith of many others. But the crisis has also been devastating for the vast majority of priests who are not child molesters. Accused of nothing, they find their own lives dramatically transformed by the abusive behavior of others, and by the occasional failure of the church they love to detect, deter, or stop that abuse.

"The trust that was broken in the lives of those suffering the effects of abuse is a trust which was built upon the selfless lives of thousands of priests who have served faithfully and well in this archdiocese throughout its history," Cardinal Bernard F. Law said Wednesday, as he apologized for clergy sexual abuse and for his own "tragically incorrect" decisions in reassigning Geoghan, a known pedophile, to a new church in 1984.

"One of the sad consequences of these instances of abuse -- a consequence which pales in comparison to the harm done to these most innocent of victims -- is that they have placed under a cloud of suspicion the faithful priests who serve the mission of the church with integrity," Law added.

In Massachusetts, life for priests began to change in 1992, when the case of James Porter became public. Porter, a priest in the Diocese of Fall River, was convicted the next year of sexually abusing 28 boys and girls; the case was so horrific that Law ordered every pastor in the archdiocese to apologize from the pulpit for the damage done by clergy sexual abuse. The archdiocese also barred priests from allowing young people into the residential parts of a rectory.

Tomorrow, Geoghan, a Boston priest accused in civil suits of molesting at least 130 young boys over three decades, goes on trial on criminal charges involving one victim.

For a church struggling to recruit more men to a priesthood whose ranks have been thinning since the mid-1970s, the scandals are further damaging the image of the profession.

"This is the second blow to the head we've received, with the first being the exodus of so many of our colleagues from the priesthood beginning in the late 1960s to marry or because they found the priesthood isolating," said the Rev. Donald B. Cozzens, author of "The Changing Face of the Priesthood." "Beginning in the mid-1980s, clergy misconduct with minors was another blow, and it has been devastating to our confidence, our morale, and our esprit de corps."

Cozzens, former rector of an Ohio seminary, argues that clergy sexual abuse has reduced the ranks of future priests and limited the ability of priests to minister to children, less because of the way young people feel about priests than because Catholic parents now regret the trust they once placed in priests.

"A generation ago, there never would have been a second thought about a priest taking a group of young people out for a late-night sandwich," he said. "I'm hoping that decades from now, priests will not be that self-conscious about innocent contact with minors, but it certainly is symptomatic of the crisis that priests are dealing with."

Priests say they are constantly aware of being viewed with suspicion.

"Now, when you look out at an audience, it crosses your mind, `What do they think of me?' " said Monsignor Peter V. Conley, pastor of Saint Jude Church in Norfolk. "It's not a logical question, but I know a priest who stood outside of his rectory and a car slowed down and a guy yelled out, `Hey, pedophile!' He was in a funk for days."

Conley, like other priests, said he has changed the way he interacts with children.

"You become very wary," he said. "Years ago, I wouldn't give any thought to some kid whose hair I might tousle, or some altar girl I might stroke on the cheek. Now, I'm very much aware of it, and if I catch myself, I won't do it. Obviously, it does limit your ministry, but your ministry could be even more limited if you're not cautious like that."

Many priests said they have talked of little else over the past week. Some reported receiving e-mails from friends and family, expressing sympathy for how they must feel; others have been grappling with whether to address the issue from the pulpit this weekend.

"There's fallout every time something like this happens, and I suppose rightfully," said the Rev. Emil Boutin, a parochial vicar at Immaculate Conception Church in Stoughton who spends much of his time ministering to young people.

Boutin said he has had increasing difficulty finding young people willing to be altar servers, once a prestigious task for Catholic youngsters, because parents are wary of allowing their children to be alone with priests.

"If I were a parent, I'm not sure how I would respond to all of this," he said. "Joe and Jane Catholic sitting in the pews may well have a hard time discerning who is OK, and who isn't."

Bowers, the Charlestown priest, said he never could have imagined that the issue of clergy sexual abuse would come to dominate the public image of his chosen profession.

"I just had this feeling of disgust and betrayal," he said, describing his reaction first to the Porter case, and then to Geoghan. "And I don't think any of us understood the role of the church -- whether it was denial or incompetence. I think the jury is still out on that."

A graduate of his parish school in Needham and Xaverian Brothers High School, Robert John Bowers was voted "most likely to become a priest" by his classmates at Boston College. Over the last 14 years, he has also served parishes in Malden, Norwood, and Milton.

Just three months ago, he got his first assignment as pastor, in Charlestown.

Bowers specializes in ministering to kids. He spent two years in advanced training in youth ministry. He serves on the board of Por Cristo, a Brockton-based group that helps children in Ecuador, and is the president of the Chernobyl Children's Project USA, a nonprofit group that brings sick children from the Chernobyl area to Massachusetts each summer.

But these days, he tries never to be alone with a child. Of either gender. Of any age.

Troubled teenagers have to make appointments to see him; he won't see young people unless he knows someone else will be around, which is not always easy since he is the only paid employee of his parish. He schedules meetings with young people when volunteers are in the rectory, or he speaks with them at large gatherings where they can talk out of earshot but within view of others.

He won't drive kids home after church functions except in an emergency. When he leads youth retreats, he has chaperones do the bed checks or anything else that would require going into the rooms of young people.

"I used to love those nights when kids would come and talk and talk and talk," he said. "Now, I don't even know any more if parents would want their kids alone with a priest. I'm not going to stop ministering to young people, but I'm not going to put myself in a situation where even the possibility of an accusation could happen."

He said the priesthood has not always been easy -- he got into hot water with Law some years ago for writing a column for a Catholic newspaper expressing disappointment with his early life as a priest -- but he said now he can't imagine doing anything else.

"I love being a priest, and I'm not going to live my life being paranoid about it," he said. "And I'd like to say that there are some of us who are healthy. We're far from perfect, but we're doing the best we can. We love our church, and we love our ministry."

Michael Paulson can be reached by e-mail at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 1/13/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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