|Priest Survives Scandal's Whispers, Returns to Thunderous Applause
By Douglass Crouse
July 2, 2007
They had waited five years to see their shepherd return home.
On Sunday, the Rev. William Dowd completed that long journey, walking down the aisle of St. Luke Roman Catholic Church in Ho-Ho-Kus to the thundering applause of more than 500 supporters.
Many in the congregation were stunned when vague accusations of sexual misconduct surfaced against Dowd in 2002. As the years dragged on without any resolution, their feelings turned to frustration and in some cases anger.
But Sunday's Mass was a time for rejoicing at Dowd's exoneration by Vatican officials and his return to active ministry. The standing-room-only service marked Dowd's 40 years as a priest.
As choir members lifted their voices, Dowd moved from pew to pew, hugging and kissing those close enough to reach him. The clapping reached a peak as Dowd embraced retired Archbishop Peter Gerety and Auxiliary Bishop John Flesey, then turned with tearful eyes to the congregation.
"I thought my lungs were going to burst I was so happy to see him back," said parishioner Madeline Tacconi.
To the disappointment of many parishioners, Dowd has not been reassigned to St. Luke, where he became pastor in 1997. He said Sunday that he will resume his former role as chaplain to the New York Giants. A spokesman for the Newark Archdiocese said church leaders had sought a position that would allow Dowd to "ease himself into active ministry."
For the 67-year-old priest, Sunday's Mass was an occasion to reflect on a painful ordeal -- while proving it hadn't cost him his trademark sense of humor.
"I'm rusty," he joked as he opened the afternoon Mass with prayer, prompting a wave of laughter.
In a half-hour message by turns lighthearted and reflective, Dowd described suffering as a "cost of discipleship" and Christians as called upon to "look forward, look ahead and keep moving." Speaking from the aisle, he acknowledged his experience had left scars, and expressed gratitude to family and friends for helping him through.
"Thank you for loving me and empowering me at times when I wanted to say, This is enough!" he said.
In brief remarks, Gerety praised Dowd's decades of ministry, and proclaimed a "day of vindication and truth" for a man who had been "under the burden of a cross for five years."
Asked later about his hopes, Dowd said Sunday he would accept "whatever the bishop wants of me. For now, there is such joy in my heart."
Church officials released few details about Dowd's case, saying only that a man from Mississippi initially came forward, followed by a second accuser. Both alleged that Dowd had engaged in sexual misconduct with them while they were minors. Because the allegations were decades old, the statute of limitations precluded any criminal charges.
A panel of three priests found Dowd innocent of the allegations in a 2005 closed-door church trial in Newark; Vatican officials affirmed the decision last month. That allowed Dowd to again celebrate Mass and represent himself as a Catholic priest.
Some parishioners erupted in cheers when the news was announced during Mass last month.
"The church just went crazy," said Anthony DiGiacomo, who was among those who lined up to hug Dowd during a reception after Sunday's 90-minute service. Dowd had married him and his wife, Laurie, in 2001, DiGiacomo said.
"It was so different after he left," Laurie DiGiacomo said, holding her 2-year-old son's hand. "Everyone missed him so much."
In his message, Dowd urged the congregation to believe in the differences they make, citing their prayers, calls and letters as examples. "Don't ever let the light go out," he exhorted the crowd. "Don't ever let the darkness define you."
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