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Priest says he’s innocent, fights for his job


Fr. George Spagnolia won’t let himself be sidelined without a fight and is vigorously defending his reputation and ministry. Suspended from the Boston archdiocese Feb. 21 after being accused of sexually abusing a minor 31 years ago, Spagnolia denies the charge recently lodged against him and is refusing to step down as pastor of St. Patrick’s Church in Lowell, Mass.

“Evil” is the word Spagnolia uses to describe Cardinal Bernard Law’s new policy of turning over the names of priests accused of sexually abusing minors to the media and to prosecutors without a thorough prior investigation.

“The policy does not allow for due process as it’s being implemented,” Spagnolia told NCR. “It goes totally against the Code of Canon Law, which protects priests and pastors, and which has due process formulas. Those have been totally abrogated by the cardinal archbishop of Boston to the detriment of the church of Boston and the church universal as well as to the priesthood.”

One of 10 priests that the archdiocese of Boston removed from the pulpit in February because of allegations of sexual abuse, Spagnolia is the only priest to proclaim his innocence. He was removed from his pastoral duties five days after a man told church authorities he had been assaulted at age 14 when Spagnolia was vicar at St. Francis de Sales Church in Roxbury, Mass., in 1971.

The priest sent a certified letter to the cardinal informing him he would remain as parish priest at St. Patrick’s Church, but agreed he would not say Mass or perform the sacraments until the investigation was completed.

“I have done nothing,” Spagnolia told hundreds of supportive parishioners at St. Patrick’s Church on Feb. 25.

On Feb. 27, Spagnolia was served an eviction notice from Law requiring him to vacate St. Patrick’s rectory. The notice did not specify the date by which the priest must leave.

Even before the Spagnolia case highlighted concerns about due process and the right to privacy, some people were beginning to question whether zero-tolerance policies such as Boston put in place recently represent the swing of the pendulum from one extreme to another.

“Everyone has the right to their good name,” said Fr. Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils. “If there’s an allegation, it’s an allegation. The release of names of the accused without substantiation is questionable to my mind.”

With many priests feeling they are now under a cloud because of the pedophilia scandal, Silva said the National Federation of Priests’ Councils is issuing a letter to presbyteral council chairs. The Feb. 28 letter encourages priests to discuss among themselves the issue of sexual abuse, to learn more about the nature of pedophilia and its effects on both the victim and the perpetrator so that better policies can be put in place, and to probe and discover what is life-giving in the way priests live and what is not.

Silva said the National Federation of Priests’ Councils will be meeting March 13 with the executive director of the Priestly Life and Ministry Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, with the president of the National Office for Continuing Education of Roman Catholic Clergy, and with Fr. Steve Rossetti, president of St. Luke Institute, to discuss how to help presbyteral councils get their priests to come together for reflection, discussion and healing.

Right now, many good and faithful priests are feeling devastated and demoralized, Silva said. The letter released by the National Federation of Priests’ Councils urges priests not to withdraw from people but to bond more closely with them and to examine the system in which priests live to see whether it is supportive of their ministry. The council’s letter is accompanied by a letter from Rossetti, who notes that the scandal is tainting St. Luke Institute as well. The institute assists religious who are suffering from a wide range of emotional and psychological problems. Rosetti said formerly some people thought priests were better than others. Now some are going to the opposite extreme and suggesting priests are more disturbed than others.

An ongoing discussion

With different dioceses around the country having different policies for how allegations of sexual abuse should be handled, discussion over what constitutes a fair policy probably will not end soon. Recently, the Portland, Maine, diocese attracted attention when it released the names of two priests in active ministry who were guilty of sexual misconduct with a teenager 20 years earlier. Both priests had received psychiatric treatment in the 1990s after victims had come forward in 1991 and 1993 with accusations of misconduct. Neither priest was diagnosed as a pedophile. The two priests had disclosed their past history to parishes, in one case before the entire parish and in the second case to a core group involved in running the parish. The diocese then asked the priests to go before their new parishes and disclose again.

“We want to make sure that each and every parish where these people are put know the background and have the right to refuse the priest if they want to. It’s very different and novel that the parish has the right to say no. The decision is not just left to the bishop. Bishop [Joseph] Gerry has said he wants the parish to be part of the decision-making process,” said Sue Bernard, communications director for the Portland diocese.

Bernard said the diocese has a zero-tolerance policy for pedophiles, but for other cases of sexual misconduct it handles matters on an individual case-by-case basis. Right now, the diocese is pleasing no one with its policy, she said.

“The response from the very faithful and those who have come to love these two priests is they feel they’ve already paid their dues. They feel bad that the priest has to talk about something that has happened more than 20 years ago and as far as we know neither priest has exhibited this behavior again. On the other end of the spectrum, people in southern Maine who don’t know these priests feel the bishop is being far too lenient,” Bernard said.

In Lowell, Spagnolia is vowing to take his case to Rome if necessary. He has expressed some of the bluntest public criticism of Law that has been heard from priests in the Boston archdiocese.

“The bishop is supposed to be the priests’ advocate but he is giving us all away,” Spagnolia said. “He’s gone from extremes, from the extreme of protecting his priests, because in protecting the priests he is protecting the institution, to an equally wrong stance of zero tolerance because zero tolerance as it’s being implemented does not guarantee justice. It cloaks fear and arrogance in the mantle of righteousness.”

A statement put out by the Boston archdiocese notes that a delegate of the archdiocese met separately with the victim and with Spagnolia and determined that there was reasonable cause to believe abuse of a minor had occurred. The statement said the actions the archdiocese took in relieving Spagnolia of his position as pastor “should not be construed as a conviction of the accused cleric.”

Fr. James Coriden, canon lawyer at Washington Theological Union, said that the Spagnolia case raises two questions: the endangerment of a priest’s reputation and his removal as pastor. Coriden noted that canon law provides for certain procedures to be followed when a pastor is removed. These include a legitimate inquiry, a discussion with the pastor in question, and then a discussion with two other pastors. The pastor threatened with removal is supposed to be given two or three opportunities to answer and respond to accusations.

Does Coriden have concerns about the justice of turning over names to prosecutors and the public?

“Absolutely, I do. It’s hard to know how much investigation has taken place. It’s virtually unheard of on the basis of an unproven or uninvestigated allegation to turn over someone’s name to the civil authorities, especially when it’s 30 years ago. That doesn’t seem to be fair in ordinary human terms and it’s certainly not fair in canonical terms,” Coriden said.

In the sixth week of a fast of reparation for the sins of the church revealed by the pedophilia scandal, Spagnolia said public outrage over the Boston archdiocese’s sheltering of pedophile priest John Geoghan, now defrocked, followed by the establishment of new policies on sexual abuse of minors that assume a priest’s guilt is affecting the entire priesthood.

‘A frenzy out there’

“It’s a frenzy out there now and priests are frightened and they should be,” Spagnolia said. “Just think of what this is doing to seminarians seeing what is going on. Why are they even thinking of going on, given that they could be dismissed summarily without due process? Based on an accusation, I had my parish taken away from me and I had my right to function as a priest taken away from me just on an accusation.”

Spagnolia spoke of the human costs to relationships the pedophilia scandal in the church is causing. “When I was in high school, we had a priest in the parish who had a summer home near the Cape, and he would pile four or five high school kids into the car and we would go down to the beach and have a cookout and go for a swim and stay overnight and we had a wonderful time,” he said. “That made a lot of us see the priest in a totally different light and made the priesthood attractive to us and made us start thinking of the priesthood as something we would want to do. That kind of normal, filial connection has been severed and is certainly severed more by the policy that is being implemented here in Boston. The times have just been so terrible. It’s making an awful lot of the human kind of contacts that we would just do naturally become inappropriate and that is just so sad.”

Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman at the Catholic bishops’ conference, said she knows of no plans on the part of the bishops to come up with a nationwide policy for handling instances of sexual misconduct with minors. Spagnolia thinks that is a mistake.

“We’ve got to set some standards that are fair and just and Christian on a national level,” he said. “This is what the bishops should be discussing. Mother of God, they spent four days discussing whether Ascension Thursday should be moved to a Sunday!”

Since taking his stance, Spagnolia said he’s been getting a lot of support. “My fellow priests have been calling me. I’m not trying to be a true altruist because my life is at stake here, but I also feel what I’m doing is for every priest,” he said.

Margot Patterson is NCR senior writer. Her e-mail address is mpatterson@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 8, 2002