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Spotlight Report

With transfer of miter comes hope for trust

Diocese of Springfield's newly installed 8th bishop apologizes to abuse victims, seeks church healing

By Brian MacQuarrie, Globe Staff, 4/2/2004

SPRINGFIELD -- In elegant St. Michael's Cathedral yesterday, the transfer of the bishop's miter to a Bronx-born son of Irish immigrants symbolized the Diocese of Springfield's unsettling place at a crossroads of crisis and hope. More than 1,400 friends, family, and parishioners gathered for a centuries-old rite that installed Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell as the eighth leader of the diocese.

McDonnell, 66, has been charged by Pope John Paul II with bringing stability and healing to a diocese rocked by a flood of clergy sex-abuse allegations that included his predecessor, Bishop Thomas L. Dupre, among dozens of priests who are said to have molested minors.

Dupre, 70, abruptly resigned in February when confronted with allegations that he had abused two minors in the 1970s. Dupre has been sued by the alleged victims, now 39 and 40, and Hampden District Attorney William Bennett has convened a grand jury to consider criminal complaints against him.

"From the depths of my being, I apologize to those who have been hurt, who have suffered wrongs from those they should have been able to trust," McDonnell said during the installation. "I am overwhelmingly sorry. I pray for God's help to prevent any such wrong ever happening again."

Such words will need to be buttressed by active outreach to the abused, greater participation by the laity in diocesan affairs, and sweeping changes in a church hierarchy that is viewed with grave suspicion, according to alleged victims and Catholic activists here.

"Survivors, in particular, who trusted and have been burned again and again by church officials are wary of giving that trust again," said Peter Pollard, coordinator of the Western Massachusetts chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

Neither Dupre nor any of the diocesan priests removed from ministry because of sex-abuse complaints appeared at the ceremony, whose participants included Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley of Boston; Cardinal Edward Egan of New York; the papal envoy to the United States, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo; and more than two dozen bishops.

McDonnell had asked many alleged victims to attend. One who came was Thomas Martin, a 42-year-old East Springfield resident who said he had not been inside a Catholic church since he was 15. Martin has filed an abuse suit against Richard Lavigne, a recently defrocked priest convicted in 1992 of molesting two altar boys.

Shortly after Lavigne's conviction, the diocese paid $1.4 million to settle abuse complaints lodged against him by 17 men. Lavigne also is the only suspect ever to be identified in the 1972 slaying of Daniel Croteau, an altar boy.

"I have a good feeling that Bishop McDonnell is a good man and will help lead this diocese out of this mess," Martin said.

McDonnell, who most recently served as auxiliary bishop of the New York Archdiocese, has been asked before to bring stability to an institution plagued by allegations of sexual misconduct. In 1990, he directed Covenant House for six months after the director of the Manhattan shelter for troubled youths was accused of child molestation.

Despite his optimism about McDonnell, Martin said that preparing to attend yesterday's ceremony was a draining reminder of a lifetime of emotional trauma.

"Aside from drug addiction, I've lost job after job after job," Martin said. "I lost my apartment, spent my retirement funds, and there's been a couple of suicide attempts."

The nightmare returns, Martin said, whenever Lavigne patronizes the Springfield bar where he works. "I hide when he shows up," Martin said. "I'm 42 years old, and I'm hiding, because, to me, that's terror."

Laura Reilly, the diocese's victim outreach worker, said that although Dupre never hindered her work, "I was very blindsided by the allegations. . . . Now, we're all questioning everything."

Such questions also have come from the clergy, notably the Rev. James Scahill, pastor of St. Michael's parish in East Longmeadow. Scahill has assailed the diocesan hierarchy as being out of touch with its parishioners, and he has criticized parishioners for ceding too much church control to the clergy.

"I think this bishop has no honeymoon time. He simply has to do the right thing right away," Scahill said. "That means not simply giving lip service to victims, but extending to them the compassion and the embrace that they have not received from this church."

John Stobierski, a Greenfield lawyer whose firm represents more than 40 alleged victims, said the diocese needs "to take a pastoral approach and treat the injured as the most injured lambs in their flock."

However, encouraging signs have emerged this week, according to church critics. McDonnell met Monday with a mediation service hired by the diocese, including two alleged victims who act as consultants, that helped broker the landmark sex-abuse settlement with the Archdiocese of Boston. The Springfield diocese also established The Fund for Hope and Healing, whose donations will be disbursed by an advisory board of victims' family members.

These efforts received cautious praise, but the repair work needed between clergy and laity appears to be daunting. Internal diocesan statistics, released last month, reported that 30 priests had been accused of sexually abusing 70 youths in the last 50 years. Church officials said 22 of those accusations were deemed credible.

Over the years, such information was closely guarded by a diocesan hierarchy that has been ravaged by abuse allegations that named, among others, former officials such as the head of diocesan schools, the chief recruiter for the seminary, and a secretary to two bishops. "It's been pray, pay, and obey," Stobierski said.

However, if the sustained, repeated applause at yesterday's installation is an indicator, the diocese's 241,000 Catholics appeared to be eager for a fresh beginning. Such feelings extended to another Springfield neighborhood, where Evelyn Vecchiarelli paused before leaving morning Mass to reflect on the revelations that have shaken her church.

"I feel the new bishop can bring about a change and straighten everything out that has happened," she said at St. Paul the Apostle Church. "If anything, my faith was made stronger."

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