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 Latest coverage

March 23
Law's words frame new play

March 2
Wary Catholics return to church

January 25, 2004
Churches report attendance up

January 4, 2004
Dot parish struggles to survive

December 28
Hudson fill-in priest welcomed

December 12
Law prays daily for diocese

November 22
Assignment for Law expected

November 20
Policies on VOTF reconsidered

September 19
Crisis issues in church's future

September 18
Meeting ban at parish is lifted

August 4
O'Malley given warm welcome

August 1
Lawmakers see shades of gray

July 31
An angry protest, and prayers
Voices of protest and support
Three in crowd bound in hope
At BC, optimistic students watch

July 29
Lay group to engage O'Malley

July 24
Many outraged after AG's report

July 21
Law to skip bishop installation

July 18
O'Malley invites Law, victims

July 11
Bishops seek private opinions

Earlier stories

Spotlight Report

  Danny Hevert, age 6, watches Mass at Canton's St. Gerard Majella Church, where many parishioners remain unsettled about how the Catholic Church is handing the abuse crisis. (Globe Staff Photo / Suzanne Kreiter)
More photos of St. Gerard's


'How can one rejoice?'

Catholics at one Canton parish have begun to heal, but the scars of broken trust linger

By Bella English and Don Aucoin, Globe Staff, 12/17/2002

Last spring, the Globe visited St. Gerard Majella Church in Canton to observe the impact of the unfolding priest sexual-abuse crisis in the Archdiocese of Boston and nationwide. As parishioners assembled for Mass on Sunday, they assessed the damage of a tumultuous year and - with uncertainty and hope - looked forwardt o a new day.

 The series
Priests have been charged, bishops pressured to resign. But the enduring impact of the clergy sex-abuse scandal may be in the pews, where many parishioners are demanding a fundamental power shift from church leaders to the laity. With the lay empowerment group Voice of the Faithful convening in Boston Saturday, the Globe visits one suburban parish, St. Gerard Majella in Canton, where the revolution is underway.

Part one: The people
How the scandal changed just about everything at St. Gerard's.
Part two: The pastor
They call him father Mac, and most think his openness has kept the parish together.
Part three: The next generation
How the youth of St. Gerard's are responding to the scandal.
Follow-up: The healing begins
Five months after the original series, another visit to St. Gerard's.

 Photo gallery
Portraits of St. Gerard Majella

 Message board
How has your parish responded? readers comment on this series and discuss how the scandal has affected their parishes.

Transcript of Don Aucoin chat
On July 17, the Globe's Don Aucoin, co-author of the St. Gerard series, talked with readers about the Canton parish and the priest sexual abuse scandal.

CANTON - The words were an electric current, jolting Mary McDonough in her pew at St. Gerard Majella Church, her sanctuary for more than 30 years.

It was the first Sunday Mass at the church since the resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law. On the altar, the priest had just spoken of the need for love and forgiveness.

''Never,'' McDonough whispered fiercely. ''I will never forgive Father Frost. And it will take a long, long time to forgive Cardinal Law and the archdiocese.''

McDonough's son Kevin died 19 months ago from an overdose of drugs following years of battling depression and substance abuse. It was not until after his death that his parents learned he had confided in others that the Rev. Peter J. Frost, an associate pastor at St. Gerard's in the 1970s, abused him when he was an adolescent. Mary and John McDonough now believe the abuse led to their son's long descent into drugs, despair, and ultimately, death, at age 36.

From the waves of sorrow and fury that rolled through the burnished pews of St. Gerard's this year, it has been possible to gauge the seismic effect the crisis has had on devout Catholics.

It has been a turbulent journey, and neither peace nor reconciliation can be purchased by one man's resignation. Even after Law's departure, as archbishop of Boston, mistrust and uncertainty fester within this church of moderate middle-class worshipers. Some point an accusing finger toward Rome. They question why Pope John Paul II rejected Law's resignation when he offered it in April, which could have averted months of acrimony. They wonder how much the Vatican knew of the priest sexual-abuse crisis all along, and why it hasn't reached into its coffers to help an archdiocese teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

Yet as parishioners grew more alienated from the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, they drew closer to their own parish. Throughout the crisis, attendance at St. Gerard's has remained strong: About 1,500 parishioners attend each Sunday, giving between $8,000 and $9,000 a week - earmarked specifically for the parish and its works. As for the financial appeals by the Boston Archdiocese, like Promise For Tomorrow, the Rev. Bernard McLaughlin, the pastor, didn't even bother to pass the collection baskets. ''I was skeptical about where it would go,'' he said.

A willingness to challenge

From the beginning, the parishioners and their pastor were not content just to fulminate about violations of trust. They translated anger into activism, determined to shift the balance of power from church authorities to lay people. First, the church established a chapter of Voice of the Faithful, the nationwide lay organization that emerged in response to the crisis. Then, in an unprecedented move, McLaughlin appointed a parishioner as the Voice's representative on St. Gerard's parish council - even as Law was banning the group from meeting in parishes. It was a direct challenge to the archdiocese, a move that would have been unthinkable just a year ago. And that challenge appears far from over.

''I'm angry, very angry, very sad, and a little bit unsure of where we are now,'' said Greg Pando, 55, an architect and the vice chairman of St. Gerard's finance committee, after the 10 a.m. Mass. ''This is only the first volley. There are so many more [church leaders] who need to be removed. This didn't just happen with Bernard Law. The culpability is spread far and wide.''

In a sentiment echoed throughout the parish, Pando stressed that his ''individual faith is as strong as ever'' but his ''trust in the ability of the archdiocese to govern itself has become less and less. We need a very strong, honest, humble leadership.''

Yet even in a parish where antipathy toward Law had grown so strong that one parishioner said last summer the cardinal would be ''booed out of the place,'' the cardinal's presence lingers. On their way into the church Sunday, parishioners walked past a portrait of a younger, more vibrant Law that still hung in the vestibule. As McLaughlin blessed the sacrament during Mass, he intoned the ritual benediction for ''Bernard, our bishop'' before quickly correcting himself: ''Richard, our bishop.''

On the surface, it appeared to be any other Sunday at St. Gerard's. Parents hushed their rambunctious children so they could hear a few routine announcements from McLaughlin: A parishioner had died; there would be refreshments and a singalong after the upcoming Christmas pageant. But there was nothing routine about this Mass. It was unlike any other in the two decades since Law arrived in Boston.

''This is a moment when we should be praying for the institution,'' McLaughlin said somberly. ''If it doesn't heal, it will bleed to death. And we don't want that.''

Neither McLaughlin nor his flock has ducked the challenging questions posed by the crisis. Many parishioners said it would be unfair to the abuse victims if the archdiocese declared bankruptcy. Many also believe that law enforcement should continue its investigation into the coverup.

Even with Law gone, St. Gerard's has scheduled a meeting tonight to talk about what McLaughlin called ''the disaster of the past year.'' At one point during Mass, McLaughlin bluntly asked his flock: ''How can one rejoice in a church that has been caught in this mud, this quagmire?''

The answer he gave - the answer that sustained the parishioners of St. Gerard's throughout this year of extraordinary upheaval - is that faith has the power to heal the broken bonds of trust. Faith remains in plentiful supply at St. Gerard's, even among those directly touched by tragedy.

The McDonoughs continue to attend Mass daily.

''It's still my church, and I'm not going to let the bad priests take that away from me,'' said Mary, 71, as she sat during coffee hour after the 8:30 a.m. Mass. But she now questions the church's teachings in a way she never did before. ''I know Jesus forgave everybody,'' she said. ''But I am not Jesus. I can't forgive. I wish I could, because it's eating away at me. I'm Catholic, but I can bitch a lot about it. It's very hard to get over the sense of betrayal.''

That betrayal was reignited earlier this month, after archdiocesan records released under court order showed that even though Frost admitted to Law that he was a sex addict and child molester - and that one of his victims had committed suicide - Law held out the possibility of future ministry to him because of ''the wisdom which emerges from difficult experience.''

''I thought I was doing good,'' McDonough said, her voice breaking, ''until those stories came out, so awful and so graphic, because I wonder now how Kevin suffered. It's the most disgusting thing I ever heard. These holy, holy church men.''

As she spoke, Father McLaughlin came up and placed his hand on her back. ''I don't expect you to forgive Father Frost,'' he said. ''I just say, love the good wherever it is, and hate the evil. The good thing is that you have a very strong foundation and belief. It's like going through the darkness with your hand in God's hand. It's like the footsteps in the sand. God carries us.''

Later, at the 10 a.m. Mass, the priest told his parishioners that ''forgiveness is sometimes very, very hard to come by. If [accused child molester and priest Paul] Shanley walked in here now, it would be very, very hard to greet him. But that doesn't mean I can't pray for him.'' McLaughlin, 68, trained at St. John's Seminary with Shanley, and later taught Richard Lennon, who was appointed interim leader of the archdiocese after Law resigned.

In contrast to his tepid words about Law over the past year, the priest drew a favorable picture of Lennon.

''He's the son of an Arlington firefighter, so he has a [grounded] perspective,'' said McLaughlin, whose own firefighter father was killed in the line of duty when young Bernie was 6. McLaughlin had this advice for Bishop Lennon: ''Go into town, go to Park Street, and talk to the people. You've got to restore grass-roots support. It's not enough to have [ad executive and prominent Catholic leader] Jack Connors support you. That's nice, but ... the people are the church.''

Seeking the next step

One of the lay leaders whose voice has been amplified by the scandal is John Hynes, an administrator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Hynes responded swiftly to the crisis by helping found the South Shore Voice of the Faithful chapters, including one at his own parish. Like many, he sees Law's resignation as the first step toward change.

''We're coming to understand that it's not the structure that needs change, it's the culture. So many parish councils have just been rubber stamps for the pastor,'' he said Sunday. In his view, priests should preside over Mass, and the laity should ''take care of everything else.'' He cites both Vatican II (which called for an increased role for the laity) and practical concerns (a decline in the number of priests) as impetus for a new Church, led by the people.

But Paul Blake, a self-described traditionalist, still has doubts about that. He continued to support Cardinal Law until the most recent revelations of coverups, and still defends him: ''He had so many responsibilities from Rome and the National Conference of Bishops and from heading committees and being on various boards ... so many things outside his responsibilities as the shepherd of the Archdiocese of Boston, that he kind of got lost on what was happening here. He was passing the problem along to his bishops.''

Blake believes that the Church has a hierarchy that will not - and should not - change. He agrees, however, that the culture must change: that ''clericalism,'' whereby priests and bishops became insulated from the laity, is unhealthy.

''If the next bishop wants to straighten out the archdiocese,'' he said, ''he should sell that property on Lake Street and move the cardinal's residence to the Cathedral and be accessible to people. Anyone who goes to Lake Street feels as though they're entering the Castle of Windmere or something. It's distant and removed, both physically and symbolically. The next person must signify that he's going to be actively involved with the people.''

Bob Bibeau, a member of the parish finance council, believes that Law's resignation is just the start of the healing process. ''The next step is to make sure this never happens again.'' Yet Bibeau believes that won't occur until officials even higher than Cardinal Law are held accountable. ''You have to go right to the top, and that is the Vatican,'' he said. ''They have to open their eyes, fess up to it, come clean. I think they knew about it.''

During Mass Sunday, Father McLaughlin signaled his awareness that many parishioners don't want their offerings to be spent defending an archdiocese grappling with multimillion-dollar lawsuits. ''We would like to underscore that the money we collect here is kept within the framework of the parish,'' he said pointedly.

There were small signs Sunday that the parish is poised to return to normality. During coffee hour, one parishioner headed over to Father Mac. ''Father, we have a huge problem,'' she said. ''We ran out of jelly doughnuts.''

Still, the shadow remains, along with bedrock bewilderment over Law's actions - or lack thereof. ''The cardinal's behavior, hiding all this stuff,'' said 17-year-old Ryan Masciarelli. ''After the first case, he could have said something. But he covered it up.''

The St. Gerard's youth group has formed a ''church crisis committee'' now in the process of interviewing key figures in the scandal - lawyers, therapists, victims - so that young parishioners can more fully understand what has transpired.

But until a full explanation of the cardinal's response is made, Masciarelli said, ''I don't think you can just move on from it. There are still amends to be made. The families who had this happen to them, there's no amends.''

Mary and John McDonough know that all too well. Last spring, they first talked about their son's alleged abuse at a meeting Father McLaughlin had arranged between parishioners and therapists. The McDonoughs will be at tonight's follow-up meeting.

Their deceased son's identical twin brother, Barry, called his parents the day Law resigned, thrilled with the news. Barry, who lives in California, will be home for the holidays with his fiancee. His parents will attend Mass on Christmas Day, as always. But Barry won't be joining them.

''He's angry,'' said his mother. ''He doesn't understand why we still go to church.'' She sighed. ''I'm very unhappy with the hierarchy, but I'm not giving up the pleasure I get out of my parish.''

Bella English can be reached at and Don Aucoin at

This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 12/17/2002.
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