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  Priest's Conviction Tears at Parish
Parent Hopes for Healing after Pressing Charges in Sexual Assaults on Son

By Brian MacQuarrie
Boston Globe
August 8, 1998

When Thomas Harding enters St. Peter's Church tomorrow morning, the emotional hurt may be as great as the physical pain that dogs his every step.

For tomorrow, at the 10:45 a.m. Mass, Harding will worship for the first time since the parish priest's conviction last week for sexually abusing his teenage son. Harding has clashed with parishioners over the years, but the friction became more intense once he sought the prosecution of the Rev. Roger Fortier.

"I'm scared what's going to happen when I walk into church. I really am," Harding, 52, said in an interview at his cramped home. "In my mind, I see some frantic person saying, 'You put him away for life.' "

Harding will enter the plain brick church with his grandson, walk toward the left-middle pew he always uses, and await the reaction of neighbors and friends with whom he has worshiped and socialized for 32 years.

What Harding will discover is whether the anger, the contempt, and the telephone calls will give way to forgiveness. Despite last week's verdict, Harding believes some people are still unwilling to believe their pastor was a sex offender.

"You have to realize you're talking about a priest, someone you were brought up to respect," Harding said. "You don't mess with the priest, you know?"

Harding's son, Joseph, a former altar boy, accused Fortier last October of sexually abusing him in 1994 and 1995. Since the priest's arrest, feelings of anguish and betrayal have racked a large family devoted to the church.

Fortier was Harding's close friend, a man who shared coffee with Harding, a severely disabled machinist, nearly every morning. He celebrated Thanksgiving, Christmas, and children's birthdays with the family. He confided deep secrets to Harding, including the fact that he was gay.

In the end, Harding turned from confidant to victim. After another family accused the priest of sexually assaulting a teenager, Joseph Harding took his father aside last year and confided that Fortier had also abused him.

The priest had shown the boy pornographic videos; he had fondled his crotch; he had performed oral sex on him.

On Tuesday, Fortier was convicted of sexual abuse in both cases. He faces sentencing in October on 16 counts and still faces trial involving a third youth.

The ordeal has tested the faith of a family whose home is filled with religious images, and who trusted the priest to take Joseph on the kind of outings Harding could not manage himself. For Harding, the chance to have a priest take Joseph, the youngest of 11 children, to the mall and other destinations seemed a blessing for a man who once thought he might never walk again.

"I felt good that he could do that," Harding said, who has a morphine bag in his stomach to ease the pain of a severe spinal injury.

Now, the feeling toward the priest is far different. "I miss Roger Fortier for the friend that I thought he was, but I hate Roger Fortier today for the person he turned out to be," Harding said.

Although Harding can speak of hate for Fortier, that emotion is not shared by many parishioners among the 300 families who comprise St. Peter's Church.

The Hardings' decision to press charges against the popular priest was greeted with disdain by some friends and neighbors, Harding said. People with whom he had worshiped for decades moved away from him at church, and on the street, he added.

Others in the parish say Harding's longstanding difficulties with church members have more to do with his past involvement in church administration than with the Fortier case.

Joseph, meanwhile, has stated he will not return to St. Peter's. But his father is adamant that he will not be pushed away.

Doris Young, whose son was the other victim of sexual abuse, feels betrayed by Fortier but said the church is a "loving" one that will heal and become stronger.

Harding recalls only three people who offered him encouragement in the nine months from Fortier's arrest to conviction. The priest did not apologize to the family after the verdict, said Harding, who added that the Diocese of Manchester had not contacted them directly.

Harding resigned last week as grand knight of the local Knights of Columbus, the Catholic men's group. His last official act was to remove Fortier from the organization.

Richard Cilley, director of religious education at the church, said he is not aware of any hard feelings. "I feel that the people of St. Peter's are good people who work very hard for their parish community as well as the community of Farmington," Cilley added.

The Rev. Eddy Bisson, the new pastor at St. Peter's, said he will not have a chance to speak about the subject at Mass tomorrow because a visiting missionary is scheduled to lead the service.

"Maybe that's just as well," Bisson said. "This way, we can see what people may be feeling and keep an eye out on the church a bit more."

Harding stressed that his anger is directed at Fortier - and not at his religion, or the church where he served as administrative assistant from 1992 to 1994.

"I think someday I can forgive him, but I can never forget what he did," Harding said.

"I'm going to pick myself up from this and become a better person - one with respect. I had it before, and I'll have it again."

 
 

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