Columnist's Courage Supports His Convictions

Republican [Springfield MA]
September 21, 2003

Many of the attributes of a good priest and a good reporter are the same.

Among them we find words like fair, honest, trustworthy, true believer, commitment, good listener, compassionate, caring.

The good ones make sacrifices but they never sacrifice anyone.

Tom Shea, our leading local columnist for the past eight years, is no ordinary sob sister. If he were a fisherman instead of a journalist, the fish would jump into his boat because they would want to be with him.

Whether he's in our newsroom, in the chair at John the barber, sitting on a stool in a storefront cafe or walking down the street, people want to talk to him. So tangible is his sense of caring for his fellow man that people feel compelled to talk to him, to unburden themselves, to give up secrets, to confess.

That was the case long before he became a columnist.

As a reporter in the fall of 1991, Shea and this newspaper led the way in reporting on sexual abuse by a priest. Shea's digging exposed the Rev. Richard R. Lavigne, who later was convicted and is now classified by the state as a high-risk sex offender. Shea also was the first to report in the fall of 1991 about a possible cover-up by the Springfield Diocese.

Shea has always been a human sponge, but in the early 1990s he found himself listening to stories by victims that were heartbreaking.

Last Sunday, he wrote a column about a recent reconnection with one of Lavigne's victims. (If you didn't read the column and would like to, you can find it on the Web at

The victim wanted Shea to write something in praise of Father James J. Scahill, the pastor of St. Michael's in East Longmeadow. Scahill has protested the Springfield Diocese's decision to continue paying Lavigne, but this victim of Lavigne wanted Shea to hear the story of how Scahill had reached out to him in a time of need.

Shea told his story in his column last Sunday. Reading it to the end without getting a lump in your throat is nearly impossible.

People are always calling or writing Shea, and he knew he had to write that column for the victim.

"I'll never forget meeting Peter Bessone back in 1991. It was the first time I saw with my own eyes what child abuse could do to someone. And it really frightened me. I honestly never thought I'd see him again. I never knew his last name. And when I saw him (two weeks ago), I couldn't get him out of my mind.

"I prayed to write a good story. To get it right," Shea said.

He did both.

A flood of mail and phone calls followed. One caller was a childhood friend.

"He told me he was molested by a priest. Said he hadn't been to church in 20 years. That he went for counseling and just received communion for the first time since he was a kid," he said.

"Guess who was counseling him. Guess who gave him communion. That's right. A good priest named Father Scahill," he added.

In today's newspaper on the Local section front is a story about awards won by some of our journalists. Among them is Shea, who won first-place recognition for his column writing.

Add to those words describing both a good pastor and a good reporter the word courage. Shea had the courage of his convictions back in 1991. He believed that the stories he was hearing about Lavigne's abuse were true, and he believed the diocesan leadership's blind eye and deaf ear strategy was intolerable.

Victims believe many important, powerful people knew about the abuse by Lavigne but did nothing. While Shea did not have their kind of authority, he had the power of his written words and he used it to do good.

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