Diocese Welcomes Bishop

By Bill Zajac
Republican [Springfield MA]
March 10, 2004

SPRINGFIELD - Saying he sees himself as a reconciler, the eighth bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield was introduced yesterday to a welcoming flock still shell-shocked from a sex abuse scandal that forced his predecessor to resign.

During a whirlwind several hours that included a press conference, a reception with diocesan personnel and the celebration of his first Mass in Springfield, the Most. Rev. Timothy A. McDonnell didn't address specific issues related to the clergy sexual abuse scandal or possible pending criminal charges against his predecessor, the Most Rev. Thomas L. Dupre.

Rather, the 66-year-old current auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New York described himself as a "what you see is what you get" kind of guy, a New York Yankees fan and a pastoral shepherd.

He also demonstrated an ease with people as he shook hands and chatted with dozens of people before returning late yesterday to New York. He expects to return several times before moving here permanently upon his installation April 1.

Although he didn't mention Dupre by name, McDonnell's first homily at a noon Mass at the Holy Spirit Chapel at St. Michael's Cathedral seemed to address the Springfield Diocese's current situation.

"Our God is a God who wants to forgive the wrongdoer, but forgiveness has to be asked, and it has to be sought," said McDonnell, who then referred to the scriptural reading that reminds people to practice what they preach.

"In those two thoughts, our whole Lenten journey can be summed up," McDonnell said. "God asks us to reconcile one with another, and that is what we seek to do. That is what I hope to do here. I hope to be a reconciler."

Dupre, bishop since 1995, resigned suddenly and unexpectedly at age 70 last month amid allegations that he sexually abused two minors more than 20 years ago. Hampden County District Attorney William M. Bennett last week announced the Dupre case was being handed to an already sitting grand jury for a variety of possible charges.

If he is charged, Dupre would become the first U.S. church leader prosecuted in the current Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis.

During a 45-minute press conference, McDonnell discussed his working class, Bronx roots. However, the media was asked by diocesan officials not to ask specific questions and was told that any questions about the Dupre investigation would be referred to Bennett's office.

Until arriving in Springfield Monday, the only information McDonnell had about the Springfield Diocese was downloaded off the Internet, he said.

McDonnell said he can't even address what his priorities will be when he begins his work here.

"Before establishing my priorities, I want to listen to people and learn more about the diocese," said McDonnell, adding that it would be presumptuous and foolish to already have "a game plan."

Priests, diocesan workers and lay people expressed relief that the diocese had a new leader and said McDonnell left them with a great first impression.

"I liked the fact he has a great sense of humor and said that he believes anything is possible, nothing is impossible," said the Rev. George A. Farland, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Springfield.

Farland will be serving on several boards with the bishop-elect.

Jan Peters, diocesan schools' development director, simply said, "It feels like Easter today."

Sister Dorothy Santarpia expressed joy in meeting McDonnell.

"He is gracious and outgoing. He knows exactly what to say and when to say it."

The Rev. Roland J. Galipeau said the diocese was in desperate need of a leader.

"With this being Lent and a time to prepare for our Easter celebration, it is a perfect time for rebirth here, to start anew, to begin the healing process," said Galipeau.

McDonnell's introduction here came exactly four weeks after Dupre's resignation.

On Feb. 10, Dupre was confronted by The Republican about allegations of sexual abuse. 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 he applied in November for permission to retire before the mandatory age of 75.

McDonnell said he wasn't sure if the speed with which the Vatican appointed him was a reflection of the urgency of the situation here. But Monsignor Richard S. Sniezyk indicated it was. Sniezyk said he spoke to Archbishop Sean O'Malley of Boston several days after Dupre's departure.

"When we spoke, he was heading to Rome in several days and said that he would express to the congregation of the bishops the urgency of the situation," Sniezyk said.

The Vatican often takes as long as a year to appoint bishops.

O'Malley, who will preside over McDonnell's installation here, issued a statement of congratulations.

"It is particularly gratifying that the Holy Father has chosen so quickly to name Bishop McDonnell to Springfield in light of the turmoil that the diocese has been undergoing in the past few weeks. It speaks well of the care that he has for all of the Church of Christ," the statement read.

Before taking questions from the press, McDonnell read a statement in which he showed his pastoral side.

"The dedication and faith shown by the people of Springfield and the country as a whole in the recent past, despite wrongs in the ranks of the Church, give me renewed hope that we are able to '...let Him.' My prayer as a priest, a pastor and now bishop of Springfield is that we continue in everything to '...let Him.' Let Him help us forgive any who have wronged us," the statement read.

Peter Pollard, coordinator of the Western Massachusetts affiliate of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, offered a statement in support of McDonnell being decisive and open.

"We must remember that the road to recovery for the Springfield Diocese will be long and difficult. Only an atmosphere of complete transparency, unfettered cooperation with government investigations, and a re-evaluation of all past accusations of abuse and misconduct will restore the trust of the laity and begin the process of healing for the victims," Pollard's statement read.

Warren Mason of East Longmeadow, an outspoken critic of Dupre's handling of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, urged McDonnell to take bold steps similar to those in the Diocese of Metuchen, N.J.

Mason would like McDonnell to appoint a lay person with a strong legal background and no ties to the diocese as general secretary of the diocese.

He would also like to see a new review board composed of members with no ties to the diocese and two members victims of clerical abuse.

Mason wants to see in place a structure that makes McDonnell accountable to the laity, which he believes has to be more demanding of a stronger role in the church.

John J. Stobierski, a Greenfield lawyer who represents more than 20 people accusing clergy of sexually abusing them as minors, said the swift appointment is 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."

Thomas M. Martin, an alleged victim of defrocked priest and convicted child molester Richard R. Lavigne, said he was optimistic McDonnell would "do the right thing and reach out to the victims."

"I would absolutely be crushed and hurt if that doesn't happen," said Martin, 42, of Springfield.


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