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Lowell parishioners frustrated

Some express support for priest accused of abuse

By Benjamin Gedan, Globe Staff, 2/24/2002

OWELL -- With their pastor accused of sexually molesting a minor, parishioners at St. Patrick's Church in Lowell flocked to yesterday's afternoon Mass, some of them saying they are frustrated with the archdiocese and ready to fight to reinstate the Rev. D. George Spagnolia.

"Our prayers are with Father Spagnolia, and we're behind him," said Maryann Abcunas, 43, of Lowell.

The only public mention yesterday of the allegation against Spagnolia, or "Father Spag" to his parishioners, came in a statement attributed to the priest that urged them to attend a news conference tomorrow, where he is expected to defend his record.

"An awful lot of us are feeling frustration and anger," said Garret Sheehan after reading the statement, in which Spagnolia apologizes that he "could not be with you to make the announcement personally."

Some congregants, who learned of the pastor's removal on TV news, vowed to attend the news conference. Praising what they called Spagnolia's spiritual leadership and commitment to church maintenance projects and community events, the parishioners said they believe the 20-year-old allegations -- that Spagnolia sexually abused a child in a different parish -- were untrue.

"I don't believe any of it," said Andrea Beaucheshe, 35, of Lowell. "It's not possible."

Tom Shanahan, 53, also of Lowell, recalled a Mass Spagnolia said after Shanahan's brother died. "He reached out to us," he said. "We believed in him."

"Still do," Shanahan's wife, Jean, added.

Local politicians have also come to Spagnolia's defense. They include Mayor Rita Mercier and City Councilor Edward Caulfield, who reportedly will stand with the priest at tomorrow's news conference in front of St. Patrick's Church.

Carol Evans, 63, of Lowell, one of several parishioners interviewed yesterday outside the towering stone structure, reserved judgment.

"I wouldn't expect that from him," she said, adding that she thinks it is impossible to know what happened at another church two decades ago.

Evans, who has attended Mass at St. Patrick's for 50 years -- and seen more than 10 pastors come and go -- said the controversy had come at the worst time, with the painting of the church incomplete, construction continuing on the roof and stained-glass windows, and preparation underway for Irish Week and Easter.

Evans said she hopes the issue will be resolved quickly.

"This is a bad time," she said. "We've put a lot of hard work into this church, and I wouldn't want to see it wasted."

Many at yesterday's service, however, were not optimistic about a quick resolution.

Saying goodbye to Spagnolia's temporary replacement, Father Jim Dukowski, 61, of Lowell, Evans asked, "Will we see you again, Father?"

"Oh, you will," Dukowski answered.

This story ran on page A22 of the Boston Globe on 2/24/2002.
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