Father O'Dea: Kind, Gentle and Forgiving
By Ken Hartnett
January 31, 1999
"The way he taught us all how to forgive will be the grand jewel in his heavenly crown." -- Bishop Sean O'Malley at the funeral of Father Thomas O'Dea.
No one sitting among the mourners at the church of St. Lawrence Martyr could doubt that Father O'Dea was genuinely loved. You could read affection for the man in a sea of faces as diverse as the city itself. "The Apostle of County Street" is how Bishop O'Malley described the priest, and hundreds of heads bobbed in assent.
Those people in the pews well knew the strengths and foibles of the parish priest who played such a continuous part in their lives, baptizing, counseling, marrying, offering Mass, burying the dead, consoling the living.
They knew first-hand about his kindness, gentleness, and simplicity. They also knew of the "cross" he came to bear late in life. His friends said he carried it high, with dignity and grace .
That cross was the pain of a story published in this newspaper back in December 1993.
That story should never have been published. While Father O'Dea's memory remains fresh, that must be acknowledged.
News is a hard business. I've spent a lifetime in it and I can tell you the job eats you up. It always has and always will. We newspaper people are supposed to be objective, unattached, aloof from any special interest or current passion. News, after all, is the stuff of other people's lives, not our own. News is what we cover; it is the stories that we seek. While we are human beings and care about what we see, hear and write about, we are trained not to let our feelings get in the way. The story must rule.
But not even the most hard-bitten among us is incapable of being swept away by a cascade of feeling. We are not outside our times. Popular belief and prejudice and competitive fervor can grip us, too. We make mistakes; we can follow false scents down blind and twisting trails.
Usually, professionalism serves as our guard rail. It keeps emotions in check, assures fairness, compensates, in our case, for the fact that we're the only local newspaper in town.
But professionalism itself is not foolproof. Guard rails can and do give way.
News isn't brain surgery. We don't have clinical trials. We go on our gut, our instincts, and our sense of story. We don't have a textbook to follow. We do have, each one of us, our own code of conduct. That means we don't cut deals to keep stories out of the paper. It also means we don't cut corners to get stories into the paper. We have rules, standards, procedures.
Still, the Father O'Dea story somehow got through the ordinarily effective system of safeguards that keeps the innocent from being trampled in print.
It was a story based on an accusation of a crime against a minor.
The story itself arose out of the mists of recovered memory during the corrosive heat of the Father Porter scandal. It offered the reader guilt by association but no corroboration, no supporting data, not even a whiff of suggestive anecdote.
The story, as we say in the news business, lacked legs, and like all stories with so little substance, it quickly and deservedly died.
In the days after the story ran, no one stepped forward with even a scrap of evidence to bolster the accusation against Father O'Dea. People did come forward to vouch for Father O'Dea or to express their outrage at us. The diocese, which had been investigating the allegation for months, concluded it was baseless soon after the story appeared.
A fair-minded person now looking back can only conclude what those close to Father O'Dea said from the start: Father O'Dea was just what he seemed to be during all his years as a priest, a good and caring keeper of souls, a man who quietly did his best to help others, whether risking his life to save a suicide victim, keeping a troubled marriage together or a poor kid in the school his family couldn't afford.
The story did incalculable damage; a heart was broken and a man's reputation was brought into question without justification.
I met Father O'Dea at a gathering of diocesan priests to which I was invited a year after the story appeared.
Father O'Dea had little to say at the meeting until near the very end. He then stood and gently told of the pain the story had inflicted on him, on how it kept him for a time from performing priestly duties. He told of his joy when he was allowed to preach to his people again. Tears were in his eyes as he spoke.
There was priestly anger in that room that day. But no anger came from Father O'Dea. He conveyed only a profound sense of sorrow and loss. At one point, he said he forgave the newspaper for what it did. I have no doubt that he said that while fully mindful of the Christian meaning of forgiveness.
We had several brief conversations after that. I invited him from time to time to write for the paper, or at least share some sermons. I would have loved to print that first homily after he was back on the job. I would have loved to share the remarks he made from the altar a year or two later, after one of his young parishioners was nearly beaten to death by goons on a playground near his church. I wanted him to write about Mother Teresa after her visit to the city.
He didn't take me up on any offers. He'd simply smile and say, "I'll see."
Occasionally, we'd bump into each other on the street or in a restaurant. We'd always agree to get together. Once, he dropped by my office in the old Standard-Times building to chat for a moment. The conversation was mostly about his days as fire department chaplain.
I never did sit down with him and have a real conversation. I wish I had. I might have told him about my own childhood in an Irish neighborhood where priests like Tom O'Dea kept kids safe and striving and proud of who we were. I could have told him that.
But, most of all, I wish I had the power to roll back the clock and void one story among the hundreds of thousands of stories that this newspaper has printed over the past decade. I wish I had the power to right the wrong done Father O'Dea.
I wish I could have told him that, too.
Father Frank McManus, chaplain at St. Luke's Hospital, says his friend Father O'Dea was a man "whose life left no embarrassment behind."
What a lovely way to sum up a life of grace. What an understated epitaph for Father O'Dea.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.