Priests' Removal Angers Parishioners
The Diocese of Portland 'Purification' Finds Little Favor with Catholics Who Benefited from the Priests' Ministries
By Tom Bell
Portland Press Herald (Maine)
March 11, 2002
Madawaska — Joan Albert sat quietly through Sunday Mass as the auxiliary bishop from downstate read a letter about the Portland diocese's decision to remove two local priests from their parishes. She sat quietly through the gentle hymns that the St. Thomas Aquinas congregation sang with the hushed and halting voices of mourners at a funeral. She sat quietly, as many others here did, with her head down, her fists clenched, her eyes reddened with grief.
Then she stood up. Alone.
"My faith is offended!" she shouted, interrupting the Mass, and then launched into an angry defense of the two priests, the Revs. John Audibert of St. Thomas Aquinas and Michael Doucette of St. Agatha.
When she sat down, almost everyone else in the church, which was filled to capacity, stood up. And applauded.
"I hope you recognize," Auxiliary Bishop Michael Cote replied, once the applause died down, "that Father Mike and Father John are my brothers as well, and your grief is mine as well."
The two priests had admitted sexually abusing minors in the 1970s. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland announced Saturday that it is removing the two men from their parishes, and forbidding them from serving in any other parish, as part of a "purification of the priesthood" to help ensure public trust in the church.
Here in this heavily Catholic region, where the church for more than two centuries has defined people's sense of themselves, parishioners are struggling to come to terms with the diocese decision. The two priests, parishioners said, left suddenly over the weekend, without goodbyes, to destinations unknown.
Many parishioners are bewildered at how a scandal that erupted 450 miles away in Boston could land here so tragically and produce an outcome so contrary to their heartfelt desire to forgive. Both parish councils had asked the diocese to allow the priests to stay.
"Our voices were not heard," said Brian Thibeault, 33, who credits Doucette with saving his marriage.
Earlier Sunday in Frenchville, during the bilingual Mass at the 159-year-old Sainte Luce Church, one of the three churches that Doucette had ministered, Diane Landry wept uncontrollably as she struggled to read in French the second reading of the Mass.
In a letter published in the local newspaper, Landry had suggested that the departure of Doucette would do no good for his victim, David Gagnon, who came here two weeks ago and told the parish council how Doucette had abused him when he was 15, 16 and 17 years old.
"My prayer for David Gagnon," the letter said, "is that he realizes that his past cannot be changed. And even if these priests are taken away from their ministries, I don't believe he will find any peace."
Sharon Chasse, 40, said the diocese is punishing the priests in order to protect itself. "It was really a crucifixion," she said.
Lynda Ouellette, 46, said Doucette had helped her cope with raising two mentally disabled children.
"I am standing here mad," she said outside the church, thrusting her fist in anger. "Leave us alone!"
Others said they felt that the diocese decision gave them a sense of relief, because it has removed the uncertainty that has haunted the Catholic community here since the two priests disclosed their pasts a month ago.
Several parishioners said they wished the diocese had decided immediately to remove the two priests, rather than allow the issue to fester and draw the community into the national spotlight.
The saga of the two priests was featured on the front page of The New York Times last week, and media outlets as far away as California were calling. Several people here said they felt humiliated by the attention.
After the Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas, several parishioners lashed out at reporters, shouting at them to go back "downstate" or "back home to Portland." And they suggested southern Maine had used its political and financial power to somehow protect itself from scandal and divert it north.
Some people, though, said that the diocese was right to remove the two priests.
After Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas, Therese Nadeau walked up to Cote and grasped his hand and told him that he had done well.
"The future of our children is to be protected," she said, "and the future of the church. We have to take a stand."
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