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Spotlight Report

Church places pastor on leave

Allegation raised of abuse of a child

By Sacha Pfeiffer, Globe Staff, Globe Correspondent, 5/25/2002

Rev. Edward C. McDonagh
The Archdiocese of Boston yesterday removed a West Bridgewater pastor from parish duty and placed him on administrative leave because of an allegation that he sexually abused a child in the past.

The Rev. Edward C. McDonagh, 64, pastor of St. Ann's, becomes the 12th priest in the archdiocese to be ousted since January over accusations of sexual molestation of minors.

According to a statement issued by church officials, McDonagh was removed from his assignment after an allegation with ''enough substance to warrant further investigation'' was made against him.

Donna M. Morrissey, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, could not say when the archdiocese received the complaint about McDonagh. But she said it was ''an allegation from the past, and not one that we were previously aware of.''

Morrissey, who also could not provide the age or gender of the alleged victim or the date of the alleged abuse, said it was the first allegation ever reported against McDonagh.

In the statement, church officials said that, ''Should the allegation prove to be groundless, efforts will be made to restore the priest's reputation.''

McDonagh could not be reached for comment last night.

McDonagh is the latest priest to be removed from duty in the clergy sex abuse scandal that erupted in Boston in January when documents were made public for the first time that showed that church officials repeatedly reassigned a known child molester, the former Rev. John J. Geoghan.

The archdiocese's decision to place McDonagh on leave is in keeping with its zero-tolerance policy on abuse by priests. The policy was announced by Cardinal Bernard F. Law during a January press conference at which he also apologized for his decision to reassign Geoghan to a new parish in 1984.

Before yesterday, the archdiocese had not removed a priest over abuse allegations since late March, when Monsignor Frederick J. Ryan was placed on administrative leave after Garry M. Garland, a former star athlete at Catholic Memorial High School, filed a lawsuit alleging that Ryan molested him nearly two decades ago when he was about 14.

In February, 10 priests were removed from duty.

In yesterday's statement, church officials said, ''The allegation made against Reverend McDonagh was reported for the first time to the Archdiocese of Boston regarding a past incident. Following our policy, it was determined that the allegations had enough substance to warrant further investigation by the Archdiocese of Boston and law enforcement authorities.''

Morrissey said McDonagh's removal was not announced until late yesterday because she received news of his ouster late in the afternoon and wanted to notify social workers and St. Ann's staff before alerting the media.

Last Sunday, the archdiocese made another early-evening announcement when it faxed to media outlets a three-page letter from Law in which he said he was unaware of any allegation of sexual misconduct against the Rev. Paul R. Shanley until 1993.

McDonagh's removal was made public before church officials could inform parishioners at St. Ann's.

The Rev. Francis Cloherty, regional vicar for that area, will attend weekend Masses to formally notify parishioners and provide assistance.

''During the course of an investigation responsive steps may need to be taken quickly and regrettably, in this case, we were not able to inform parishioners first before making a public statement,'' the statement said.

Morrissey also said that a Catholic Charities social worker will be available at the church this weekend to help parishioners. Pastoral and counseling support has also been offered to McDonagh and the person who made the allegation.

''He is a very very good and holy man,'' said Joan Sorbuts, a shocked parishioner, who began to cry when told by a reporter last night that McDonagh had been placed on leave. ''I can't tell you how sad this is. I'm going to hold on to the fact that the allegation hasn't been defined yet.''

Sorbuts, who has attended the church for 10 years, said McDonagh gave excellent sermons and was wonderful with the elderly, including her mother. He said Mass at a local nursing home every Saturday afternoon, where he was well received by the residents, she said.

''I have been so impressed with him that I have prayed he would continue to be a holy man, and I believe he is,'' she said.

Another parishoner, who asked not to be identified, said McDonagh has been publicly critical of Law's handling of the clergy sex abuse crisis and has discouraged parishoners from contributing to the Cardinal's Appeal.

McDonagh, who was ordained in 1962, had been assigned to St. Ann's since 1991. His previous assignment was at Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Brockton, where he had served since 1985. Prior to that, he served at Our Lady of the Rosary in Stoughton.

It could not be determined last night where he was assigned before 1984.

Until an investigation by church officials and legal authorities is complete, McDonagh will continue to receive his salary and medical benefits, but will not have permission to perform public ministry, according to the statement.

In the aftermath of the Geoghan disclosures in January, the archdiocese turned over to state law enforcement officials the names of more than 90 priests alleged to have sexually abused minors. And 11 sitting priests were abruptly removed from their posts - eight of them after church officials discovered credible allegations of sexual abuse in their files - even though Law had publicly asserted weeks before that all such priests had been removed from their assignments.

The other three were removed when new allegations were presented.

Nationwide, the number of priests suspected of molesting minors, and who have either resigned or been taken off duty this year is more than 170.

Matt Carroll of the Globe Staff and Globe correspondent Ray Henry contributed to this story. Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 5/25/2002.
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