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Spotlight Report

Congregation backs Baptist minister

By Peter Demarco, Globe Correspondent, 11/4/2002

WINCHESTER - Congregants rallied around their pastor, the Rev. Lawrence French of First Baptist Church yesterday, saying his tenure should not come to an end despite a ruling that he sexually molested three boys decades ago.

Emerging from their first Sunday service without French, nearly a dozen churchgoers said they backed a decision by church elders to retain the minister, even though The American Baptist Churches of Massachusetts found that he had molested three boys between 1960 and 1982.

With the full support of the 100-member congregation - half of whom attended yesterday's service - French could conceivably remain as pastor if he chooses, despite the finding that he was culpable.

While he maintains his innocence, French indicated to the Globe last week that he will probably resign because the allegations have been made public. He could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Both the alleged victims and Protestant leaders who ruled on French's guilt have told the Globe he should leave the church.

But First Baptist members, some of whom knew French decades before he became the church's pastor seven years ago, said yesterday they are praying that will not happen.

Some shed tears for French at a private meeting held after the morning's service, the first services held since the Globe publicized the allegations Friday.

Others said they doubted the veracity of the allegations, of which few details have been released.

The Rev. Barbara Welch, who officiated in French's self-imposed absence, asked the small gathering to pray that God give their pastor ''strength ... and guidance in these days.'' His name still appeared in the weekly bulletin.

Church lay leaders who believe French is innocent did not reveal the allegations to the congregation until spurred by the Globe's publication of them last week. But no one second-guessed that decision yesterday.

''I think it's obvious that we are all behind him,'' said Joanne Decareau, 65, of Chelsea, who converted to the Baptist faith under French's direction. ''Regardless of what happens, he is always going to be Rev. French to us.''

''We are just hoping for what is best for him,'' said another churchgoer.

Others praised French for being caring and kind, a spiritual force who has brought unity to the small church, where nearly everyone knows one another on a first-name basis.

Although TABCOM, as the governing body of Baptist churches is known, plans to withdraw its recognition of French's ordination, it cannot force the First Baptist Church to change its leadership. Local Protestant churches, unlike Roman Catholic parishes, are not bound by the dictates of any governing hierarchy.

James ''Irv'' Rawding, who serves as the church's ranking lay leader, said there has been no discussion of removing French. He was uncertain about when, or if, French would return to the pulpit.

''We will undoubtably have a meeting someplace along the line, when we have more information,'' Rawding said. ''I've never been here before. We are just a bunch of parishioners in charge of a lovely, caring church.''

Rush Harwood, a congregation member since 1952 and a deacon emeritus, said he was surprised French did not officiate yesterday. And Decareau said she still expects French to join congregants on a planned trip to Montreal next week.

This story ran on page A13 of the Boston Globe on 11/4/2002.
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