Profile in the News Sacha Pfeiffer of the Globe Staff Contributed to This Report
In the Eye of the Storm, Pastor Is Calm Spagnolia Known As a Church Rebel
By Thomas Farragher
February 28, 2002
LOWELL - Television trucks are parked out front. The limousine from ABC is on its way to whisk him to New York.
And the Rev. D. George Spagnolia is on the rectory telephone with a network producer, pugnaciously telling his story of standing up to the cardinal. He is salty, self-assured, and - at times - smiling.
"I'm a ham," the Lowell pastor said, adding later: "This will probably be the very first chapter in my book."
Spagnolia, an accused child molester, says he quit the church once over a disagreement with one cardinal and is not going to let another one fire him without a fight that has drawn him to the center of a widening priest sexual abuse scandal.
And, it seems, he is resolved to a showdown with an accuser who says he was 14 when Spagnolia, then parochial vicar of St. Francis de Sales Church in Roxbury, molested him more than once in 1971.
"For me, personally, it would be nice if he just slipped away, you know?" Spagnolia, 64, said during a two-hour interview yesterday in the front room of the rectory. "But I think it's too late for him to do that. . . . In order to save face, I would assume that he has to come forward; otherwise I have basically called him a liar."
In the face of Spagnolia's unusually forceful denial, the Archdiocese of Boston, which simply announced his removal last Friday, is now making clear that he is being temporarily relieved and would be reinstated as pastor of St. Patrick's Church here if exonerated. Last night, Spagnolia was ordered by the archdiocese to vacate the rectory, but he stayed the night there.
But the lawyer for his accuser said the vigor of the Lowell pastor's denial does not make it more truthful. If Spagnolia is so certain of his innocence, she asked, why hasn't he agreed to be interviewed by authorities investigating the charges.
"I think people who do such things to children often respond characteristically by saying, 'I'm not the type. Look at me.' The screaming is loud and the denial is staunch. It's characteristic. I don't think it necessarily proves or disproves anything," said Wendy J. Murphy, whose client once regarded Spagnolia as a mentor and father figure.
If the charges against Spagnolia lead to his dismissal, they will punctuate an unconventional priestly career that has little regard for hierarchy in a supremely hierarchical institution.
Asked to label himself, he does not hesitate: "Radical Christian - which means back to the gospel."
When he found his seminary training "ridiculous" and "anti-intellectual," the Belmont native, raised by parents who did not attend church, participated in ad hoc sessions with fellow seminarians to learn the art of preaching.
When he concluded that Cardinal Humberto S. Medeiros would not honor his predecessor's commitment to build a parochial school for the Roxbury parish, he pitched a tent on the cardinal's lawn for four days until Medeiros acquiesced.
And when Cardinal Bernard F. Law called for his resignation this month, he was the first of 10 priests to refuse. And then he called for a resignation of his own. He said Law should step down, saying "He has no credibility among his priests. They don't feel as though they can trust him. They feel as though he'd give them up in a minute to save his ass."
Spagnolia has been here before. In 1973, when a staffing dispute at a local parochial school descended into racial discord, he said Medeiros called him to the chancery and suggested that his removal from St. Francis de Sales would defuse the situation. Instead, Spagnolia quit, taking a 20-year leave of absence from the priesthood to which he was ordained in 1964.
"[Medeiros] stuck out his hand as I was leaving, and I told him I couldn't shake his hand," Spagnolia said. "I said, 'The world is filled with empty signs and gestures, Your Eminence, without you and me adding to them."
A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston declined to discuss the incident.
As a layman, Spagnolia said he worked as a restaurant chef in Boston, a nursing home administrator on the South Shore, and as the proprietor of a Cape Cod bed-and-breakfast. He said that while he never went to church during that time, he remained celibate.
"Celibacy was for me," he said. "I felt called to that."
In 1992 he was treated for throat cancer, and he lost his Yarmouth Port inn after he said three offers to buy it fell through, leaving him with a "big balance that I couldn't pay."
By then, he was ready to return to the priesthood. "My faith in Christ was very strong. I was still a man of prayer," he said. "Then, I called the cardinal." After some retraining, he returned to the altar. "The shoe fit. I felt comfortable."
In the weeks before he was to become accused himself, Spagnolia used his pulpit at St. Patrick's to condemn the conduct of predator priests and church leaders who covered up their crimes.
"We've been betrayed by our brother priests who commit sexual abuse on children, and we've been betrayed by our bishop because of the way he has handled it and the secrecy," he said.
So when the cardinal's delegate, the Rev. Charles J. Higgins, summoned him to the chancery last week to confront him with a 31-year-old allegation, he said he was temporarily stunned, and then sickened by the way he said he was treated by church authorities. "They could care less where I live," he said. "They never said, 'Do you have a place to stay?' Nothing. Nothing. You'd treat your dog who licks your face better than that."
As Spagnolia took his media battle national yesterday, appearing on ABC's "Good Morning America," and weighing other network interviews, the lawyer for his accuser said the man, now in his mid-40s, has no intention of escalating a debate in public, and she declined to make him available to be interviewed.
"In a sad way, isn't it fair to say the church has a good amount of experience in listening to allegations of priest sex abuse to get a sense of what a credible allegation sounds like?" asked Murphy.
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