Springfield Bishop Faces Hard Task of Regaining Catholics' Trust

By Adam Gorlick
Associated Press, carried in Providence Journal [Springfield MA]
Downloaded March 10, 2004

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) - Growing up in a lower-middle-class neighborhood mixed with Irish, German and Jewish families making their homes in the Bronx, Timothy McDonnell never questioned his calling to be a priest.

There was that longing to help others and a deep devotion to serve his faith that pushed him into the seminary when he was 19.

Nearly 40 years after he was ordained at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, McDonnell, 66, now faces what may be his hardest task as a clergyman: restoring his fellow Catholics' faith and confidence in the leadership of the Springfield Diocese, which was shaken last month by allegations that recently retired Bishop Thomas Dupre molested two boys in the 1970s.

"I hope to be a reconciler," McDonnell said Tuesday during his first Mass at St. Michael's Cathedral, hours after the Vatican announced he would be the eighth bishop of the Springfield Diocese.

Although he said it's too soon to say exactly how he will help heal the diocese, the role of reconciler is one he's played before.

In 1990, McDonnell took over operations of the Covenant House in Manhattan for six months after the founder of the agency for troubled youths was accused of child molestation and financial wrongdoing.

The Covenant House board eventually found no serious financial impropriety, but did uncover extensive evidence of sexual misconduct. The Rev. Bruce Ritter, the organization's founder who died in 1999, was never charged with any criminal wrongdoing.

McDonnell "was the one who carried the Covenant House through a difficult period," said Charles Devlin, a deacon at St. John and St. Mary Parish in Chappaqua, N.Y., where McDonnell served as parish priest from 1993 to 2002. "He kept it going and made sure whatever problems there were got corrected. He is a very, very intelligent guy. But if he has anything, he has an ability to read people and recognize the strengths of people who he works with without micromanaging them."

Many Springfield-area parishioners and priests registered the same first impressions of McDonnell - easygoing, approachable and sincere. McDonnell's soft, round face bursts into a wide grin signaling the start of a deep belly laugh often brought on by his own one-liners, sometimes poking fun at his heavyset frame.

Asked at a Tuesday morning news conference if his brother - also a cleric - is older, McDonnell didn't skip a beat when he responded "he looks it." In fact, his brother is younger.

His sense of humor and relaxed style are a stark contrast to the public image of Dupre, who often appeared uncomfortable and stiff in public.

But McDonnell's resume shows a serious and dedicated pastor and church administrator.

The son of a gas station owner and homemaker, McDonnell's first stint as a parish priest came after his ordination in 1963, when he served for seven years as associate pastor at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Ardsley, N.Y.

He spent the next seven years as assistant director of anti-abortion and marriage preparation programs for the New York Archdiocese, then served as director of an outreach program for the archdiocese between 1977 and 1980.

McDonnell was named a vice chancellor in the archdiocese in 1980, and sent back to a parish in 1984 when he went to Holy Trinity on Manhattan's upper West Side and quickly became known the down-to-Earth priest stationed at the parish.

"He's not going to be dressed up in his red robes and a big cross all the time," said Colleen Glazer, Holy Trinity's director of religious education. "He is a priest of the people and he will fare well because he'll have a sensitivity of the wounds that are there."

After serving at the St. John and St. Mary parish, McDonnell was made vicar general of the New York Archdiocese and also became an auxiliary bishop.

Despite his rise through the hierarchy of the New York Archdiocese, McDonnell said he never expected to be selected as a diocesan bishop.

When the Vatican notified him last week that he was about to be appointed leader of the Springfield Diocese, McDonnell said he was "flabbergasted." The call came while he was in his first day of a Spanish language immersion program that he signed up for.

"I think God has a sense of humor and reaches out and taps you when you least expect it," McDonnell said.

Once he's installed as bishop on April 1, McDonnell says he'll develop a strategy for dealing with a criminal probe into the abuse allegations against his predecessor, and begin listening to the concerns of his parishioners and their priests.

"I am a parish priest," he said. "All of my preaching extends from the parish. And because of that, I hope to be here a pastor."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.