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A priest's leadership

AFTER VANDALS smeared swastikas on the door of the Adams Street synagogue in 1997, the Rev. Walter Cuenin got 300 people out of the pews at Sunday Mass and marched them up the street to show his support for his Jewish neighbors. This was an early sign of the dynamic, innovative, and inclusive leadership he would demonstrate as he led Our Lady, Help of Christians parish in Newton through the turmoil of the sexual abuse scandal, the worst crisis in the history of the Catholic church in Boston.

Now he is gone, forced out by Archbishop Sean O'Malley on trivial accusations of financial impropriety. And my family, parishioners at Our Lady's for the last seven or eight years, feel bereft, empty, and deeply angered. We, and hundreds of others, have lost a leader who energized our spiritual lives and gave my spouse, children, and me a nurturing home in the Catholic faith.

Like many Catholics, we were looking for a church that was spiritually vibrant and accessible to the many Catholics who feel estranged from the faith, including gay people, the divorced, and the remarried. As a hymn sung often at Mass proclaimed, ''All are welcome in this place."

Cardinal Bernard Law appointed Cuenin to the pastorship in 1993 when Our Lady's grand 112-year-old church had fallen into disrepair. Cuenin led a $4 million campaign to restore the church to its earlier splendor. He assembled an 11-person staff to educate the children and guide the ministries that would meet after Mass or in the evenings. He made sure that strong, independent lay people were elected to the pastoral council and finance council to monitor and advise on parish operations.

As he was working to rebuild the parish, he deftly integrated members of the nearby St. Jean's parish, which Law decided to close, into the Our Lady's community.

Three and a half years later, with all the ministries humming and the parish in sound physical, financial, and spiritual health, this newspaper uncovered the sexual abuse scandal. Like many other parents, I was appalled that the leaders of the church could put the coddling of their fellow priests above the protection of children. The scandal resonated with special pain at Our Lady's when the Globe reported that the Rev. Paul Shanley may have abused boys when he was pastor at St. Jean's in the 1980s.

Cuenin responded magnificently. He condemned the abuse, withheld money from the archdiocese, stood with a family from St. Jean's when they accused Shanley of abusing their son, provided a haven at Our Lady's for lay activists from Voice of the Faithful, and helped to organize a group of 58 priests who demanded that the cardinal resign. Cuenin's leadership sustained the parish during this ordeal and kept me -- and many others, I believe -- in the church.

Last weekend, as the children were settling in to religious education classes, the justice and peace committee about to meet, and the Honduras committee preparing to talk about our sister parish in San Marcos, we all heard the news that Cuenin was on the way out. His offense: $75,000 to $85,000 in compensation over the past 12 years that violated archdiocesan rules. And never mind that most of this was approved by the finance council, including the lease on a Honda Accord. The archbishop wanted Cuenin out, and that was that.

I never saw a grimmer congregation leave church than I did last Sunday following an announcement read by Cuenin. He said he wanted no protests, but what else could we do? Several hundred parishioners gathered in the basement Monday night to grieve and to express their anger. ''We don't need a new person to tell us what we do," said Gisela Morales-Barreto. ''We know how to do it." Most of us signed a petition to have Cuenin reinstated.

There's no chance of that. The archbishop appointed the Rev. Christopher Coyne to replace him almost immediately. Coyne was the spokesman for Cardinal Law during the abuse scandal. Coyne promises to listen to the parishioners, but many of us are not sure he will. If he's serious about that, he'll maintain the level of lay involvement encouraged by Cuenin and allow Voice of the Faithful, an important part of Our Lady's, to keep meeting there.

Terrence Donilon, spokesman for the archdiocese, insists that the money was the sole cause of Cuenin's resignation. Not many people are buying that. O'Malley has kept around him holdovers from Law's regime, notably Bishop Richard Lennon and Chancellor David Smith, and many people wonder whether the sacking is a reprisal for Cuenin's defiance of the cardinal. My guess is that Cuenin's support for gay people in the parish is a more likely reason. It caused a buzz on traditionalist Catholic websites, one of which included a photocopy of a letter from Bishop Lennon to a Cuenin critic dated July 8 saying the archbishop ''wishes to assure you that he is in the process of addressing this whole matter" of Cuenin's support of gays.

I never heard a word of heresy from Cuenin, but I was heartened by his willingness to ask questions about the church's treatment of women and marginalized groups, a theme that hearkens to the earliest days of Christianity. Matthew's gospel as read last Sunday had Jesus telling the religious leaders of his day that prostitutes and tax collectors would be getting into heaven before them.

On Monday night, Beri Gilfix, president of the synagogue, came down Adams Street to show solidarity. ''Walter exemplified what a religious leader ought to be," she said, recalling the march eight years ago. With the abuse ordeal barely over, it appears the archdiocese is about to endure a time of rigidity and suppression. Memories of Cuenin's years at Our Lady's will hearten the people of the parish as they keep struggling for a church with the spiritual zest he did so much to foster.


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