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Spotlight Report

Pastor fires couple for views

By Matt Carroll, Globe Staff, 7/20/2002

For more than 20 years, John F. Sheehan and his wife, Maureen, distributed Holy Communion, taught religious classes, and helped at church bazaars at Immaculate Conception Church in Easthampton.

Then in late May, the couple were fired from their volunteer jobs as Eucharistic ministers and lectors by the Rev. William Hamilton, the pastor of their church.

The reason: At a press conference at Faneuil Hall on May 3, John Sheehan called for less secrecy and more accountability from bishops and cardinals, who have been reeling from the sex abuse scandals involving clergy.

''We're outcasts in our own community,'' said Sheehan, 63, who is the national coordinator for a church reform group called the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church, which held the press conference.

Today, Sheehan is expected to join thousands of other Catholics in Boston at a conference organized by Voice of the Faithful, an organization that arose from the sex abuse crisis and calls for greater involvement of laity in the church.

The firings, especially of his wife, who he said did not participate in the press conference, are unwarranted, said Sheehan, a Southampton resident. Hamilton has spoken to his wife but never to him about the firings, he said.

Hamilton defended his decision in a statement. ''When taking such a public stand against the church, as they did, it is unrealistic to also want to present oneself as being in unity with that same church,'' Hamilton wrote.

''To allow them to continue, after they themselves made such a public point of noting their differences with the church,'' he continued, ''would be confusing at best for the rest of my congregation. And at worst, scandalous for those who respect the church as it is, not as they would like it to be.''

Hamilton said he had tried to reach Sheehan, but a phone call was unreturned. He hoped the issue could be resolved and ''we could have this discussion in person and not through the pages of a newspaper.'' Through a spokesman, Hamilton said it was his understanding both Sheehans were involved in the activities.

Sheehan, a former priest who left the clergy in 1971 to marry, said he went public with his dismissal because Bishop Thomas L. Dupre of the Springfield Diocese did not respond to a letter he wrote on June 26 about the situation. His wife wrote the bishop two weeks ago and would not speak with a reporter because she said she wanted to give Dupre more time to respond.

The firings have roiled the parish, where the couple is well respected by many parishioners. John Sheehan is also well known in the community; he was president of the Northampton-based Hampshire Community United Way for 23 years, until retiring last year.

''If there was any Rock of Gibraltar at our church, it is John and Maureen,'' said parishioner Rochelle Benoit of Southampton, who wrote the bishop to protest the Sheehans' dismissal. She said the firing stunned her. ''John is the kind of person you would do anything for because of the respect he commands,'' she said.

John Kmetz of Easthampton, a 67-year-old parishioner who is retired from the insurance business, said the firing was ''seen as punishment because he is so active. The church needs people like John and Maureen. People in the parish are very upset.''

Lewis C. Rudolph, president of the United Way in Northampton, called Sheehan ''a local legend'' for his charity work. ''He's probably one of the most trusted people in the community.''

Sheehan said the firings have upset him greatly. Eucharistic ministers serve Holy Communion, while lectors do readings at Mass. ''Both of us have worked in the parish for 25 years. It hurts to be cut off from our friends,'' he said.

Matt Carroll can be reached at

This story ran on page A14 of the Boston Globe on 7/20/2002.
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