Archbishop Rigali Comforts Church Where Priest Resigned over Sex Abuse
He Celebrates Mass at Our Lady of Providence

By William Lamb
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
December 29, 2002

St. Louis Archbishop Justin Rigali came to Our Lady of Providence Roman Catholic Church in Crestwood on Saturday to soothe a congregation still reeling from the news, delivered a week ago, that their pastor had admitted sexual misconduct and had resigned.

Officiating at the 5 p.m. Mass, Rigali told more than 500 parishioners who filled the sanctuary that they should seek solace and strength in one another until he appoints a new pastor. Rigali also urged them to forgive the Rev. Robert F. Johnston, the church's pastor since 1996.

Johnston admitted more than a week ago that he had sexually abused a teenage boy 24 years ago, when he was at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Valley Park. Parishioners at the church in Crestwood were told about Johnston's resignation at services on Dec. 21 and 22.

"I am deeply sorry for what Father Johnston did many years ago," Rigali said Sunday. "I know and I know that you know that he is very repentant and seeks forgiveness from you and from the person involved."

The victim came forward about two weeks ago, said Jim Orso, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Orso said the archdiocese encouraged the victim to report the incident to police.

Johnston admitted to the abuse after he was summoned to archdiocese headquarters in the Central West End and was told to resign, Orso said.

Johnston was spending the holidays with family, Orso said. He could not be reached for comment.

Parishioners attending the Saturday evening Mass credited Johnston with getting the parish out of debt and refurbishing the church, at 8866 Pardee Road, which was festooned with pine boughs and red ribbon for the Christmas holiday.

They recalled the Christmas Giving Tree that Johnston put up in the church each year. In place of ornaments, he hung the names of needy families in Old Mines, Mo., a rural community near Potosi where he had once worked. Parishioners were encouraged to take a name and to give what they could.

"He was a very generous man," said Raymond Brennan, 69, of Crestwood, a parishioner at Our Lady of Providence for seven years. "He did a lot of outreach with other parishes."

Rigali condemned Johnston's misconduct, urging parishioners and clergy alike to "commit ourselves to the protection of young people everywhere."

But he also told them "to remember all of the good things and good service that he did."

Brennan's wife, Mary, 69, said that the archbishop's presence Saturday night had helped. Rigali stayed behind for 30 minutes after the hour-long service to talk to parishioners individually. Rigali was scheduled to be at three services beginning at 7:30 a.m. Sunday.

"It means a whole lot," she said. "We thank him for being here, especially at a time like this."

Karol Fischer, 60, a fifth-grade teacher at a parochial school in Mehlville, echoed other parishioners when she said the timing of Johnston's resignation, just before Christmas, was particularly unfortunate.

"It's just a shame that all of this has to come to the fore now," she said.

In his sermon on the nuclear family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Rigali told the parishioners that both families and parishes are source of strength and comfort, particularly in difficult times.

"In good times and in bad, in injury and in sorrow, we stay together because we are united in God's love," he said. "Despite the difficulties experienced in the parish, go forward with a great trust in God. Pray for forgiveness for all who have offended God."


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