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Spotlight Report

Concerned priests try to rediscover voice

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 10/17/2002

They are demoralized and fearful after 10 months of headlines about clergy sex abuse, but Boston's priests are also, increasingly, regaining their voice.

At a series of gatherings over the next week, they said, they plan to vent their concerns and discuss how to protect their rights, even as they mourn for the victims of some of their fellow priests and fume at the mishandling of the scandal by church leaders.

Tomorrow, the Boston Priests Forum, which said it represents about 300 priests, or more than half the active priests in the archdiocese, will bring in canon and civil lawyers to offer tips to local priests about how to respond if accused of abusing minors.

Next week, Cardinal Bernard F. Law will hold his first meetings with all priests in more than six months, and the topic of priests' rights is expected to dominate.

The presbyterial council, a church panel that represents priests, is meeting today to continue its discussion of a proposed 94-page policy on child sexual abuse that priests want to reflect their worries about due process.

''We think our rights are being violated by the present policy - that at the present time the policy is not sensitive to the canonical or civil rights of the accused,'' said the Rev. Robert W. Bullock, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Sharon and a leader of the Boston Priests Forum. ''There have been 24 priests who have been removed over accusations this year, and we are convinced that a significant number of those priests have been falsely accused.''

The issue of priests' rights is complicated for Law because he has been repeatedly accused of having failed, in the past, to remove from ministry priests who were abusing minors. In response to a public outcry, Law this year agreed to oust any priest who ever molested a minor, but now priests say that some who are not guilty are being punished simply because they were accused.

''Certainly we're aware that there is a level of concern amongst the priests about their rights, and these meetings next week will be an opportunity to address those concerns,'' Law's spokeswoman, Donna M. Morrissey, said. ''We are working to address those concerns.''

Priests say that at next week's meeting they plan to raise the issue of the archdiocese's stance toward Voice of the Faithful, the lay group formed by parishioners upset about the church's handling of the scandal. Law has barred new chapters of the lay group from meeting on church property, but is allowing existing chapters to continue meeting while he decides what his position is on the group.

Bullock and the six other leaders of the priests' forum met for two hours last week with Law's top deputy, Bishop Walter J. Edyvean, to discuss the archdiocese's handling of accusations against priests.

At tomorrow's meeting of the priests' forum, priests will hear from a civil lawyer, James F. O'Brien, and a canon lawyer, the Rev. Art Espelage. O'Brien, a former seminarian at St. John's Seminary in Boston, now represents four accused priests in Boston and one in Brooklyn. Espelage is the executive coordinator of the Canon Law Society of America in Washington, D.C.

O'Brien said yesterday that he has already circulated a memo among local priests, advising them, if accused of abuse, not to attend a meeting with chancery officials unless accompanied by a civil and canon lawyer.

O'Brien said priests have few rights under civil law, but that they do have rights under canon law, and he believes those rights are being violated by the archdiocese.

He said investigations last too long, that priests are not fully informed of the details of accusations against them, that priests have too little opportunity to refute allegations, and that priests are punished before they are found guilty.

But the most important meeting is next week's gathering between Law and the priests. He has invited all priests to meet with him Tuesday in Medway or Wednesday in Arlington, his first such invitation since he held a series of regional meetings with priests in February.

''I hope there'll be a true dialogue between the cardinal and his priests, because, obviously, that relationship now is pretty well strained,'' said the Rev. Bernard P. McLaughlin, pastor of St. Gerard Majella Church in Canton. ''There's a great deal of sympathy about the Voice of the Faithful, and the old medievalism still seems to be somewhat in place. And the priests' rights issue is very, very important for everybody.''

The Rev. Robert J. Bowers, pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Charlestown, said Law ''is going to face an unhappy and demoralized group of people.''

''His status is very much on people's minds, because he has become the symbol of the whole crisis, but it's a funny relationship because he is the bishop and we are the priests,'' Bowers said. ''The whole thing with Voice of the Faithful has also caused division, because it has polarized people. And the crisis is a constant ache at this point.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page B5 of the Boston Globe on 10/17/2002.
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