New Springfield Bishop Named

By Bill Zajac
Republican [Springfield MA]
March 9, 2004

SPRINGFIELD - Exactly four weeks after the Most Rev. Thomas L. Dupre resigned as bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield amid sexual abuse allegations, an auxiliary bishop from the Archdiocese of New York was named by the Vatican today to replace him.

The Most Rev. Timothy A. McDonnell was introduced at a news conference this morning as the eighth bishop of the 133-year-old diocese, which has 129 parishes, 14 missions and 275,000 Catholics throughout Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin and Berkshire counties.

McDonnell, 66, who has experience in dealing with at least one other church crisis related to sexual abuse allegations, is a New York City native. Born in the Bronx, he was ordained in St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan in 1963 and was installed as an auxiliary bishop on Dec. 12, 2001.

McDonnell will be installed as bishop on April 1 in a ceremony at St. Michael's Cathedral.

Reaction from local people and some who know McDonnell came swiftly today.

John J. Stobierski, a Greenfield lawyer who has represented dozens of clients who have alleged priest abuse, said the swift appointment of McDonnell came as good news.

"We're hopeful that this change in leadership will signify a change in the direction in dealing with the victims and survivors of clergy sex abuse," Stobierski said. "The direction that has been taken thus far has not been incredibly victim friendly."

The Rev. James Scahill, an outspoken critic of Dupre's handling of clergy abuse cases involving the former Rev. Richard Lavigne, said McDonnell should follow the path of Bishop Sean O'Malley of Boston who hired a new law firm to handle settlement talks.

The Springfield law firm Egan, Flanagan and Cohen represents the diocese.

"He needs to make changes to the 'old boy network,' and fire the law firm the diocese has been working with for five decades," Scahill, pastor of St. Michael's Parish in East Longmeadow, said.

Sniezyk said just days after Dupre's resignation that the diocese "must come clean" on "the old boy network" that allowed past abuse.

"The people of Springfield are finally going to be blessed .... He's an incredible man truly filled with the Holy Spirit," said Joan M. Ferroni, of Chappaqua, N.Y., pastoral associate and parishioner at St. John and St. Mary's church, McDonnell's last full-time post as a pastor.

"I could see him fitting in there. Tim's a good people person," said the Rev. Andrew More O'Connor, priest at Holy Trinity Church in Manhattan, where McDonnell served as pastor from 1984 to 1990.

The appointment was made with almost lightning speed by Vatican standards.

It took eight months for Archbishop Sean O'Malley to be named to lead the Diocese of West Palm Beach, Fla., in 2002 after two consecutive bishops admitted sexually abusing minors.

It took about the same amount of time for the Vatican to name O'Malley to head the Archdiocese of Boston, considered the epicenter of the clergy sexual abuse scandal in the United States.

O'Malley put settlement of clergy abuse claims on a fast track in Boston, hiring a new law firm to handle the settlement talks.

In 1990, McDonnell dealt with a church crisis when he was called away from his pastor's life at Holy Trinity Church in Manhattan and assigned by Cardinal John J. O'Connor to help the embattled Covenant House, the nation's largest privately funded international child welfare agency.

The Rev. Bruce Ritter, the founder of the Manhattan-based agency that helps troubled youths, had resigned amid charges of sexual abuse of young men who stayed at the Covenant House. He was also charged with financial wrongdoing.

"It was one of the hardest things I ever did, because there was such potential that something that was great and good could disappear," McDonnell was quoted as saying in an article in "Catholic New York."

McDonnell was proud of his work there.

"Not a single young person was turned away in the whole time," McDonnell said in the same story.

One of his favorite quotes is from the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who once said, "There's nothing so bad that God can't bring a greater good out of it if we let him."

The new bishop will be expected to address a variety of challenges in the Springfield Diocese, including some created by the circumstances surrounding Dupre's sudden departure at age 70 on Feb. 10.

On Feb. 10, Dupre was confronted by The Republican about allegations that he sexually abused two minors beginning more than 25 years ago. Hours later he checked himself into St. Luke Institute in Maryland, which treats priests with a variety of disorders, including those charged with sexual abuse.

His resignation, attributed to health concerns, was announced the next day. Diocesan officials said Dupre, who was bishop since 1995, applied in November for permission to retire before the mandatory age of 75.

McDonnell's appointment comes less than a week after Hampden County District Attorney William M. Bennett announced he would take the Dupre case to a grand jury for possible prosecution. If charges are filed, Dupre would become the first U.S. church leader to be prosecuted on sex-abuse charges in the recent church scandal.

The new bishop will have to restore credibility, particularly in dealing with diocesan issues of clergy sexual abuse. Dupre was accused of being slow to try to defrock Richard R. Lavigne, a convicted child molester who was stripped of his collar recently.

Dupre's oversight of diocesan records pertaining to clergy abuse also has raised concerns. The mother of one of his two alleged victims said she sent two letters to the diocese last year referring to the abuse, neither of which was found by diocesan officials after Dupre left.

"Legitimate concerns have been raised as to whether or not records were properly preserved and whether or not evidence of misconduct was properly reported as required by the law," Bennett said last week.

The new bishop also needs to reach out to clergy sexual abuse victims and their families, try to help settle clergy sexual abuse claims, discipline bad priests, reassure good ones, and close and merge parishes as the number of priests continue to diminish.

Under Cardinal Edward M. Egan of the Archdiocese of New York, McDonnell served as the archdiocese's chief legal officer. In January, he began overseeing the archdiocese's work of merging, eliminating and yoking parishes.

McDonnell had wanted to become a priest as early as 3 years old, his younger brother John J. McDonnell told The Journal News of Westchester County two years ago.

The new bishop studied at Cathedral Preparatory Seminary, St. Joseph Seminary in Yonkers and Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., where he earned a degree in pastoral counseling.

After his ordination, he held several pastoral and administrative positions until becoming a pastor at Holy Trinity in 1984.

After serving as deputy director of Covenant House for three years during its crisis, he became a pastor at St. John and St. Mary Parish in Chappaqua, N.Y., where former President Bill Clinton now resides.

He served in Chappaqua until he was installed two years ago as an auxiliary bishop.

Local Catholics look forward to the diocese's new leadership.

"Our parish is 100 percent behind whoever is chosen. We will pray that he will lead this diocese forward," said Francis McGuigan, the director of music at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Church in Springfield.

McGuigan's pastor, the Rev. William A. Tourigny, announced at Masses last weekend that a new bishop would be named this week.

Meanwhile, the district attorney last week said he would turn over to an already sitting grand jury evidence related to a variety of possible charges against Dupre, including sexual abuse, failure to report sexual misconduct to proper authorities, concealment of sexual abuse and other matters regarding the reporting of abuse by the diocese while Dupre was in a position to influence reporting of sexual abuse cases.

The statute of limitations presents the biggest obstacle to sex abuse charges because it limits prosecution to cases made within 15 years after an individual turns age 16. The men, one of whom was a 12-year-old refugee and the other around 14 when the alleged abuse began, are now 39 and 40.


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