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  An Ousted Priest, His Offense Long Past, Wistfully Departs

By Jodi Wilgoren
New York Times [New Buffalo, Mich.]
August 1, 2002

The Rev. Thomas DeVita had planned his departure from public ministry this morning in exquisite detail.

He would wear the vestments he bought last Christmas, with the burgundy stripe to match the sanctuary walls. The choir would sing, "Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place" as if it were a holy day, not an ordinary Wednesday. As his final act, he would walk through the pews of St. Mary of the Lake, blessing the congregation. Then, without goodbyes, he would head for his new cottage in the country.

But Peggy Jachim, a St. Mary's parishioner since 1975, had a heart attack on Tuesday night. So after Mass today, Father DeVita drove to St. Anthony's Hospital in nearby Michigan City, Ind., draped a purple stole over his shoulders and made the sign of the cross over her bed in the intensive care unit.

"You have a lot of people praying for you, so don't be surprised if you feel good in a matter of days, if not hours," he told Mrs. Jachim, who is 70.

"And I'm going to keep you in my prayers," Mrs. Jachim said. "That you get reinstated."

Father DeVita, 55, then returned to the rectory here and took off his Roman collar, perhaps for good, just before noon. Twenty-four years ago he engaged in sexual misconduct with a teenage Long Island boy, and under the zero-tolerance policy adopted by the nation's Roman Catholic bishops in June, he is now barred from publicly administering the sacraments, working in the church or calling himself Father.

Nearly 300 priests around the country have been removed from their duties since January as a result of the church's sexual abuse scandals. Mr. DeVita, who spent three months in psychiatric care and publicly repented four years ago, is among about a dozen -- including five in Chicago, two in Rochester and one in Paterson, N.J. -- appealing their cases to Rome through a secretive canonical process.

Though his devoted flock is devastated by his dismissal, Mr. DeVita's detractors, many of whom left the parish after his past surfaced, are relieved.

"Our new priest will come in, and I will go to his first Mass," said Esther Adrian, 69, who joined St. Mary's at age 4 but has been attending church in a neighboring town since 1998. "I know there will be a lot of people that will not greet us back, but I don't care. That's my church. I made my Communion there. I miss it."

Mary Lou Fahrberger, whose son refused to continue with confirmation classes after learning of Father DeVita's abuse, said the priest's removal stopped short of justice but would let peace return to the red-brick parish in this resort community of 2,200 just across Lake Michigan from Chicago. "All those faithful parishioners who are crying over him," she said, "I'd like to ask them if they would send their son or their daughter with him on vacation."

Daniel Lotten, who was 16 when his friendship with Father DeVita "crossed the line," as the priest has put it, and who later received a $50,000 settlement from the church, declined to discuss the departure.

"The whole situation just brought so much pain to my family," said Mr. Lotten, who had worked with Father DeVita at an outreach center in Kings Park, N.Y., and now lives in Key West, Fla. "I don't want to talk about it at all."

Mr. DeVita is now on administrative leave, barred from any public ministry but allowed to say Mass for family and friends in the chapel he plans for the loft of the two-bedroom home he bought 12 days ago for $135,000. The Diocese of Kalamazoo will support him financially, at least until he gets another job. The Rev. James Morris, who teaches at a Catholic high school near here, has been appointed administrator of St. Mary's until a new pastor is chosen.

On Sunday, after a standing-room-only Mass where he was showered with two solemn ovations, Father DeVita, who grew up in Valley Stream, N.Y., and arrived at St. Mary's six years ago, stood on the church steps as if in the receiving line for his own funeral.

"You've been such an inspiration, you know that," murmured one of the many parishioners who long ago forgave him and who maintain that the bishops' new policy treats single offenses too harshly. Another whispered, "My family sends their thoughts and prayers to you."

The priest embraced a convert who was 80 when baptized by him. He kissed a newborn's forehead and blessed a string of rosary beads in an outstretched palm.

"You'll always be Father Tom to me," Janie Peppel-Wojdula told him. "We're going to miss you terribly."

Mr. DeVita, who decided to seek the priesthood after his First Communion at age 7, has tried in recent days to remain hopeful: that his appeal to the Vatican will be approved, that he may someday again stand at the altar of St. Mary's, that God's plan for his life will soon be revealed.

"The essence of Christianity is 'Thy will be done,' " he said on Sunday after Mass and a reception where parishioners plied him with cards and checks for $20, $50, $100. "In the last six weeks, I've been praying to know God's will, and to have the strength to do it."

For now, Mr. DeVita is trading a life ministering to a 300-member parish with a $2.7 million building campaign for the solitude of a woodsy acre about an hour's drive from here whose address and phone number he has shared with only a few friends and relatives. Since joining the Jesuits at 18, he has never even paid rent; during the last six weeks, while preparing vestments for storage, he has bought his first-ever bedroom set and toaster oven.

"You know, it's like a bride, he needs everything," Mr. DeVita's 82-year-old mother, Jennie, visiting from Florida, said as she and her daughter took his credit cards on a six-store shopping expedition two weeks ago. They bought pillows and paper towels, a vacuum cleaner and a clothes dryer, cookie sheets and a coffee maker, Tilex and Clorox and two kinds of dishwashing liquid.

The first thing he did upon arriving at his new house after the closing was to place a statue of St. Francis on a table on the deck. (He later moved it to the garden.) Inside, several parishioners who had taken a day off from work tore up the battered carpets and, eventually, knocked down part of a wall to open up the staircase to the chapel he plans. Mr. DeVita's father, Frank, 87, a retired cabinetmaker, spackled holes in the mantel and put up a shelf for the microwave.

Mr. DeVita had the doors painted a royal blue, "the color of our blessed mother." On Monday, he placed crucifixes in the bedrooms and unwrapped several paintings of Jesus. "Never can have enough of the Lord," he said as he polished the frame of one with haunting eyes. "This one reminds me to behave myself."

Mr. DeVita said he was grateful that Kalamazoo's bishop, James A. Murray, had given him six weeks after adoption of zero tolerance so that he could depart with dignity, a circumstance that has enraged victims' advocates and former parishioners who do not understand the special treatment. The diocese's chancellor, Edward Carey, who attended this morning's Mass at St. Mary's, said the bishop would support Mr. DeVita's appeal, under a canonical promise of due process.

"The facts as they stand today are no different than they were four years ago; we supported him as pastor then," Mr. Carey said. "We would have liked to be able to review particularly cases like Father DeVita's, where you have a long history of serving well, rather than a 'one strike and you're out' kind of thing."

Mr. DeVita plans to spend the next two months resting, then look for a job, probably in counseling.

In his homily on Sunday, he said he had never felt closer or more committed to the church, the priesthood and God. He later likened his situation to that of a spouse who realizes the blessings of his marriage only after he is found to have a terminal illness. He also compared his infidelity to St. Peter's denial of Jesus, saying, "The difference with me is though I know Jesus has forgiven me, other people haven't."

But as cousins and friends gathered on Sunday afternoon around a rectory table laden with his mother's penne and meatballs, he said, "I'm not going to blame the church for what I did wrong."

After this morning's Mass and hospital visit, Mr. DeVita kissed his collar as he put it away, then changed into shorts and a T-shirt, the uniform of his new life. He packed his parents, and the chalice they had given him on his ordination, into the car, and walked back into the church, alone. He knelt in front of a statue of Mary and the baby Jesus, and lighted a candle on either side of the shrine. Approaching the sanctuary, he knelt again before lowering his lips to the altar a last time. After turning to the crucifix, he fell to his knees and dropped his head.

Then he left, dipping his fingers in the holy water by the side door.

An earlier article on June 17 examined the prospect of the Rev. Thomas DeVita's leaving his parish. Later articles will follow his appeal to the Vatican and how he builds a new life. Both articles and photographs are online at nytimes.com/national.

 
 

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