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Spotlight Report

Prayers for a banished priest

By Bella English, Globe Staff, 12/1/2002

t gets dark early now, and so the prayer vigil at St. Ann's Church in West Bridgewater starts an hour earlier. It has been six months, and still they come. The young altar servers, the middle-aged moms, the grandparents. They wear yellow ribbons in their lapels and recite a host of Hail Marys and Our Fathers in honor of their departed priest, the Rev. Edward C. McDonagh.

Father McDonagh is very much alive, but he has not been seen at the church since May, when he was put on leave by the Archdiocese of Boston and left the rectory and the church he served for 12 years.

McDonagh, 65, has been accused of sexually abusing a boy 38 years ago. The alleged victim is dead; the complaint was lodged by his mother and sister. There were no other allegations, and St. Ann's parishioners are convinced that McDonagh was targeted because he called on Cardinal Bernard Law to resign after reports that Law knew about the Rev. Paul Shanley's alleged sexual abuse of children and transferred him to other parishes.

The parishioners in this working-class town have rallied around their banished priest. There are blue and gold yard signs all over town proclaiming: "We Support Father McDonagh." Yellow ribbons adorn the trees and the railings outside the church. Then there are the Sunday night prayer vigils, week in and week out.

Last Sunday marked the six-month anniversary, and parishioner Ann Zenus stood in front of the church and thanked the others for coming, yet again.

"I know it's getting colder and darker," she said. "I'd like everyone to pray a little harder for Father McDonagh. Maybe God will hear our prayers."

There was a message from McDonagh, too. As the season of Advent approaches, Zenus said, he wanted to remind all that it was a time of hope and anticipation. "He waits in hope and anticipation of returning to us," she said. "You are all in his prayers every day and night. He hopes he will be back with us for Christmas. He also wishes everyone a very happy Thanksgiving and he hopes you all have a good holiday and everyone stays well until he returns."

At this time of year, Father McDonagh would be getting out the holly and the Giving Tree and the wreaths and poinsettias. He would be continuing his regular visits at the local nursing home and helping plan the parish blood drive, the first Communion classes. He would have baptized several babies and helped others in the parish with wedding plans and funerals.

But the priest, who parishioners say never took a vacation, remains in a rented apartment in the area, spending his days waiting for the Archdiocese to decide his fate. If you call the rectory, you get an answering machine.

Parishioners are angered by the way his case has been handled. They say the identity of the accusing family was withheld "to protect their rights," while the Archdiocese held a press conference to disclose McDonagh's name and parish. And many parishioners first learned about their priest's predicament on TV news.

Most of all, they are chafing at the six-month lag that has left them without their beloved priest. Since May, St. Ann's has seen a revolving door of visiting priests, strangers all. Whereas McDonagh handled the Saturday Mass and three on Sunday, sometimes four different priests will take those four services. The result: a lot of confusion at the altar, parishioners say. Attendance and collections have dropped, with some vowing not to return until Father McDonagh returns. But most of the faithful have stayed, hoping the archdiocese will clear his name. Neither criminal nor civil charges have been filed, and parishioners are adamant in their belief that McDonagh is innocent.

"No one believes these charges," said Annette VanderStaay, who has belonged to the church for 20 years. "It's too coincidental that it happened right after Father spoke out against the Archdiocese, and then he was gone. Father is a person of integrity. This was supposedly one incident nearly 40 years ago. Pedophile priests have many victims. They don't stop."

Mike Benya spoke for many others when he called on the archdiocese to "stop stalling, make a decision and return him to us. The process is unbelievable. They cannot put people's lives on hold like that, whether the clergy or the people of the parish. We understand the need to be thorough, but this is ridiculous."

Along with praying for their priest on Sunday nights, the people of St. Ann's also pray for the victims of priest sexual abuse. "Our hearts go out to the victims," Benya said. "But we fully believe in Father McDonagh and we want him back."

Entering one of the holiest periods of the year, the parishioners feel rudderless. The kids miss Father McDonagh popping into their religious education classes to add his two cent's worth. The new parents desperately want him their to perform his warm baptismal introductions of their babies into religious life. The kids who want to be altar servers are waiting for him to train them. God forbid someone should die and not have Father by their side.

Seven-year-old Brittany Churchill says she wants Father McDonagh to come back so he can conduct her First Communion next spring. "I forget what he looks like," she says. Her sister Stephanie, 9, is waiting for McDonagh to train her as an altar server. "He promised," she said. ("I would absolutely trust my kids with him anytime, anywhere," said their father, Mark, a church lector).

Parishioners know the church is more than its priest; it is the people. After all, Father McDonagh constantly told them that. But it's not the same without a leader. McDonagh doesn't have much money for a high-priced attorney - unlike the archdiocese.

Cardinal "I'm Sorry" Law has not replied to the letters the parishioners have sent, asking him to please send their priest back. Law has recently held public relations photo-ops and press conferences to show his support for victims (which they, long ignored, say is too little, too late).

As for St. Ann's, an aide to the cardinal finally wrote to the church to say the archdiocese is "proceeding as quickly as possible with the investigation." Clearly, the archdiocese needs to look up "quickly" in the dictionary. In a telephone conversation, Father Christopher Coyne, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said, "The cases are moving forward according to the archdiocesan process for handling allegations."

While they wait, St. Ann's parishioners pray for one main Christmas gift this season: the return of Father McDonagh.

Bella English writes from Milton. She can be reached at 617-929-8770 or via e-mail at

This story ran on page 4 of the Globe South section on 12/1/2002.
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