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  Parishes Come to Grips with Priest S Departure

By Victoria Rouch
Morning Star (Wilmington, NC)
April 15, 2002

WALLACE | With a crucified yet serene-looking Christ depicted above them, Monsignor Michael Shugrue and the Rev. Douglas Smiley faced the congregation of Transfiguration Catholic Church.

Standing on their belief that as priests they are representatives of Christ on earth, the men no doubt hoped to impart that same serenity to the parishioners who filled the small, sunlit sanctuary for an early Sunday Mass. But they knew it wouldn't be easy.

The Catholic communities of both the Transfiguration parish here and St. Joseph's parish in Burgaw are still reeling from the sudden departure of 57-year old Rev. Francis Perry, who after two years of serving both parishes was placed on administrative leave Tuesday by church officials. The decision to remove Rev. Perry came after it was discovered that he had lied on both a 1994 seminarian application and on diocesan forms about whether he had ever committed a crime or been charged with sexual misconduct with a minor.

Members of both churches were left shaken by the news and expressing hurt and dismay that such a fate could have befallen the man they knew as Father Drew, a dedicated priest who worked tirelessly to serve both English and Spanish-speaking members.

Now called as Rev. Perry's replacement, Rev. Douglas Smiley, a retired Army flight inspector who was ordained just two years ago, stood before a room full of strangers and sought to provide the comfort he knew they needed.

"Just like you I was shocked by the news when I heard it at 10:22 Tuesday morning," he said. "But I want you to know that through all of this there are three constants. I believe in God. I believe in the Church. And I believe in you."

Rev. Smiley told the parishioners to keep their faith, reminding them of how dejected, lost and alone Christ's disciples had felt after the crucifixion. He then reminded them of how Christ had appeared to them as a stranger and offered a gentle chastisement for their lack of faith.

"Everything hinges on faith," Rev. Smiley said. "It's been a humdinger of a week, but Jesus is here. He's in the body of this faith community."

As some church members sat crying, Rev. Smiley admitted that it would take the faith of a new priest but also the faith of each member to work through the current crisis. He acknowledged their fears, even as he admitted his own apprehension at being suddenly uprooted from the Infant of Prague parish in Jacksonville to serve a group of people he did not know. Just as church members would need help, the priest said, so would he. "I'm afraid but together in faith we can do this," he said.

After Rev. Smiley's words, Monsignor Shugrue addressed the worshippers in an attempt to explain the reasons behind Rev. Perry's removal.

Referring to Rev. Perry as his friend, Monsignor Sugrue said he joined both parishes in grieving his departure. He said Bishop F. Joseph Gossman, who had told him that the decision to remove Rev. Perry was the most difficult one of his 27 years of service, shared the grief.

But he said that it was the only course to take given the fact that Rev. Perry had willingly refused to disclose the allegations, which finally came to light last month after church officials received a letter from a member of Rev. Perry's family. The letter detailed two separate incidents. One allegedly occurred 41 years ago between Rev. Perry - then a teen-ager - and a 4-year-old female relative, and a second one in 1987 involved Rev. Perry and a male teen. Rev. Perry was arrested in connection with the later incident but the charges were later dropped after the alleged victim refused to testify.

Both allegations were leveled against Rev. Perry before he joined the church in 1990. Monsignor Shugrue said an advisory board conducted a thorough investigation before recommending Rev. Perry's removal.

"Father Drew was a good priest. He served lovingly and wholeheartedly," said Monsignor Shugrue. "But no life dedicated to God can begin with a lie."

In addition to sending a new priest and an official explanation, church leaders also sent a commitment to provide pastoral counseling. Kathleen Walsh, Director of Catholic Social Ministries of the Raleigh Diocese, also briefly addressed church members to let them know that services would be made available to anyone having difficulty dealing with the events of the past week.

After the service, church members said they found comfort in the messages they had been given and expressed assurance in their ability to heal.

"I'm the faith for the teaching. The priests are just a figurehead," said Roland Scheiber. "This may have some effect on some people but overall we are a strong community."

Transfiguration member Pat Swinson said she, too, felt comforted, but worried that Rev. Smiley's stay would only be temporary.

But Rev. Smiley said he realized the church needs stability and told another parishoner after the Mass that he will ask for the assignment to be made permanent.

And in spite of his conspicuous absence, Rev. Perry was still on the mind of many. "I'm worried about him," Mrs. Swinson said.

Monsignor Shugrue, whose provides spiritual support to his fellow priests in his position as Vicar of Priests, said he is in close contact with Rev. Perry. "He's probably doing better than I would," he said.

He said while their conversations never delved into the specifics of why Rev. Perry lied, he does believe his friend understand why he was removed.

But he said the transition was difficult for Rev. Perry, who is afraid to move out of the parish residence in Burgaw because he doesn't want to face questions from the waiting media. Monsignor Shugrue said even after Rev. Perry does move, difficulties adjusting to his new life outside a public ministry will continue. But he said the church is working to help Rev. Perry and other priests like him to adjust.

"It's not like the church is just cutting him loose," he said. "They are scrambling to help. There have been resources in place for a long time for priests who make the transition to retirement, but not a whole lot in place for priests who leave suddenly. For them, the church is not as well prepared."

Two church-run vocational centers - one in Maryland and another in Canada - will likely be made available to help Rev. Perry make that adjustment, Monsignor Shugrue said, adding that both centers have received "many calls" in the wake of current problems facing the priesthood.

 
 

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