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  Bella English  

Coping with the unexplainable


It was a necessary, but awkward, question. "Father, forgive me, but I have to ask you something. Are you . . . OK?" I wasn't asking about his health, and he knew it. "I'm clean," responded the Rev. Robert Bullock, pastor at Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Sharon. He laughed heartily. "I'm not on the list."

The list would be of priests whose names have been turned over to law enforcement officials by the archdiocese, following recent revelations of child sexual abuse by priests in the Boston area.

Everyone is talking about "the list," wondering whose name will pop up next. Will it be their beloved pastor? No, it couldn't possibly. But last week, the Rev. Daniel M. Graham of St. Joseph's in Quincy and the Rev. Paul J. Finegan of St. Bernadette's in Randolph were removed from their parishes because of past allegations of sexual misconduct toward boys.

For the 72-year-old Bullock, who has been in the priesthood for 46 years, the sexual abuse story that has blown up in the church's face is both personally and professionally devastating.

He knows Dan Graham well: "I have held him in the highest regard." Melvin Surette, who made the list, was a classmate of his at seminary. And Paul Shanley, a popular, flamboyant street priest of the '60s and '70s, worked for Bullock when he was director of campus ministry for the archdiocese.

"He was charismatic, he was very popular, he was very brave. We thought he was very effective," Bullock said of Shanley.

But more than anything, it is the lives of Catholic parishioners, and the effectiveness of the church, that Bullock worries about these days.

Trying to explain the unexplainable -- why weren't children protected? -- is not easy. But Bullock, a social activist who has helped heal this largely Jewish town in times of anti-Semitic vandalism, is nothing if not candid.

"I've been dealing with feelings of anger and disillusionment of my own," he said. He paused. "And, well, of shame." Bullock is not here to defend the Catholic Church. He's not surprised the charges have surfaced; what shocks him, however, is the extent of it all.

"I think there are certain arguments we have used that are no longer available to us," he said. "We have argued that this is only a small minority of priests. But it's a large number. The lists are staggering. Now that it's out, the air is clear and we can deal with it, and that's a good thing."

Nor, he said, can priests use the argument that pedophilia permeates every group, profession, church and synagogue. "It seems disproportionate in the Catholic priesthood, here and elsewhere."

Then there's the old celibacy argument: that pedophilia has nothing to do with a celibate priesthood. Bullock begs to differ. "That may be true. However, it may also be true that men who have the potential for this disorder may be attracted, even unconsciously, to a group like ours: all male, celibate, privileged, with access to children; a group that is loosely supervised and promises secrecy."

If secrecy has been the problem -- between priest and victim, between archdiocese and public -- then openness is part of the solution. Bullock's parish is small, with many young families. Five years ago, to make the services more user-friendly, Bullock started something called the Liturgical Institute. It's a time set aside after Communion for discussing a particular topic. In the past month, the topic has mirrored the front pages of the area newspapers: priests who are pedophiles.

The other day, the discussion had to be halted because of time constraints. "It was so vigorous," Bullock said. "The parishioners are finding a voice to articulate their feelings." He recently held a Sunday night open meeting for anyone in the community to discuss the topic of sexual abuse by priests, and is planning another soon. Here's what he is hearing: a lot of anger toward Cardinal Bernard Law and other church leaders, a lot of anger about "the money issue." Meaning that Catholics who have given to the archdiocesan "Promise for Tomorrow" campaign are adamant that money not be used to settle multimillion dollar lawsuits against rogue priests.

"This parish was very successful in raising that money," Bullock said. "We reassured them that those funds will not be used for liability, but people are still suspicious." To tell the truth, Bullock, too, would like a better accounting of where, exactly, that money will go -- and how, exactly, the settlements to victims will be paid.

Openness with his parishioners is part of Bullock's philosophy; he would like to see more openness within the Catholic hierarchy. "The denials were a symptom of larger structural issues," he said. "We need to be more open and participatory. I think it has to come from the church, the clergy, the priests." To that end, a group of priests from the South Shore is planning to form a task force "to explore the deeper meaning of this scandal for ourselves."

Bullock would like the group to push for changes, including the church taking more responsibility for the damage done, to be "more active rather than reactive." Though some of his brethren have called for Law to resign, Bullock thinks he should stay and face the music, which is not a pretty tune.

"I think the cardinal should take responsibility," he said. "He should make our archdiocese a model for dealing properly with these issues and to do everything possible to prevent this from happening in the future." Still, he believes Law has lost his "moral authority" by not dealing adequately with the allegations when they surfaced, and he blames church leadership for not protecting children. (Though he believes that the priests who deny the charges "are innocent until proven guilty.")

Throughout the scandal, one face in particular sticks in Bullock's mind. It is that of a young mother with three children who confronted him during the open meeting. She was weeping, deeply hurt and shocked and angry. "Her feelings were honest and appropriate," said Bullock, whose lined face mirrored the sadness the woman was feeling.

Although Bullock calls himself a centrist, some of his views are much more liberal than the church's party line. He believes "optional celibacy" for priests should be discussed, as should the ordination of women priests. Of the latter, he said, "You know, we're not even supposed to talk about that, but surely it should be talked about now. I think it's a matter of discrimination."

As for Father Bullock, he's "OK," he's "clean," he's "not on the list." And does he feel uncomfortable or fearful of being around children these days, with the taint in the air?

"I wouldn't say I'm fearful. But I'm certainly conscious of it," he said.

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

This story ran on page A10 of the Boston Globe on 1/10/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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