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  Parishes React to Priest Probe

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Portland Press Herald
August 10, 2004

SOUTH PORTLAND Roman Catholics responded with shock, disappointment and faith Sunday to news that the Rev. Paul Coughlin was placed on leave pending an internal investigation. Coughlin's suspension, announced during weekend Masses to parishioners of two South Portland Catholic churches - Holy Cross and St. John the Evangelist - involves whether he knew about sexual misconduct allegations against John Skinner Sr., who was recently indicted on charges of molesting a teenage boy. Diocesan officials learned two months ago that Coughlin had a long-term association with Skinner.

The Diocese of Portland is investigating whether Coughlin knew of the allegations and still put a minor at risk by allowing the child to be alone with Skinner. The diocese also is investigating whether Coughlin improperly allowed Skinner to live at the rectory in South Portland for an extended period of time.

Members of Coughlin's parishes said they hoped the inquiry would be fair, thorough and quickly concluded.

"We all love and respect Father Paul and certainly will keep him in our prayers," said Pamela Sharpe, a parishioner at Holy Cross for 10 years. "He has a big heart and he's always been there for all of us and certainly we want to be there for him."

Monsignor Michael Henchal will take over administration of the South Portland parishes in addition to his work as pastor of St. Bartholomew parish in Cape Elizabeth. The monsignor Sunday read a letter to the Holy Cross congregation from Bishop Richard Malone explaining the bishop's decision.

"Let me be very clear," the letter said, "this information does not allege any claims of sexual abuse of a minor by Father Coughlin." The letter, read to about 250 parishioners at morning Mass, said the temporary removal is an administrative action intended to help the investigation.

The allegations are that Coughlin may have violated the ethics policies of the diocese. They are not criminal allegations and police are not investigating the Coughlin case.

"The police know this information and are not taking action," said Sue Bernard, spokeswoman for the diocese. "Father is being accused of taking an action that put a minor's well-being in jeopardy . . . or took no action to keep a minor safe. What we're trying to find out is what he knew and when he knew it."

However, the information has prompted the diocese to renew its inquiry into an allegation of sexual misconduct against Coughlin that surfaced in 2002. An allegation of inappropriate touching in 1985 was investigated by the police and the diocese in 2002 and the claim could not be substantiated.

Michael Sweatt, spokesman for the Maine chapter of the Catholic reform group Voice of the Faithful, said the issue of Coughlin's relationship with Skinner is troubling.

"If Father Coughlin knew this gentleman had allegations against him or knew he was involved in inappropriate sexual conduct with minors, there's certainly no way this man should be living on parish property," Sweatt said.

"It also raises questions of what this priest learned in the Protecting God's Children program," he said, referring to the training program attended by all Catholic priests in Maine in 2002. The program was designed to teach everyone who works in a diocese how to prevent abuse and how to make the church safe for children and others who are vulnerable.

Sweatt applauded the bishop's decision to remove Coughlin from ministry while the investigation is under way. However, he questioned the thoroughness of the 2002 investigation if the diocese feels compelled to reopen that case. Voice of the Faithful has called for the release of information about all credible allegations of sexual misconduct by priests, but Coughlin's case would not have been among them if the allegation could not be substantiated, he said.

During the current inquiry, expected to last about two months, Coughlin is not allowed to have unsupervised contact with minors or to have contact with potential witnesses.

After Mass on Saturday night and Sunday, the churches held meetings where parishioners could express their feelings and seek more information. Called listening sessions, the meetings were coordinated by members of the Crisis Response Team for the diocese. About 15 people attended the session held after Sunday morning Mass at Holy Cross.

The listening sessions are similar to those convened by Coughlin in 2002 after the priest sexual abuse scandal first broke. It was learned the previous winter that church hierarchy in Boston knew of sexual misconduct by priests and responded by covering it up and reassigning the priests to different parishes.

The Diocese of Portland has collected allegations of abuse against 63 priests and other clergy members during the past 75 years.

Skinner, a lay person, was indicted in June for allegedly molesting a teenage boy from 1990 to 1994 while the older man was a youth ministry volunteer at a parish in Lincoln.

Police investigating the Skinner case learned of Coughlin's association with him and passed the information on to Deacon John Brennan, former deputy chief of the Portland police and the diocesan investigator.

Brennan presented his initial findings to Bishop Malone, who met with the diocesan council and then decided to suspend Coughlin pending the investigation's outcome.

The indictment against Skinner, the 1985 allegation made against Coughlin and the suggestion that Coughlin may have put a child at risk through his acquaintance with Skinner all involved different minors, Bernard said.

The investigation will focus on when Coughlin knew of the allegations against Skinner and whether, despite that knowledge, he allowed a child to be at risk. Bernard said she did not know when that occurred but said it did not take place at the South Portland parish.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327