Friar Faces Allegations
Will remain a priest but loses right to minister publicly

By Rita Ciolli
August 15, 2002

A popular Capuchin Friar who spent the past two decades preaching at retreats in local parishes can no longer function publicly as a priest because of allegations that he molested several boys, including one from Long Island and another from Queens.

However, the friar, Gabriel Massaro, 62, will remain a priest because he is a member of a religious order, an offshoot of the Franciscans. Order priests, whose superiors report directly to Rome, do not come under the zero tolerance policies adopted by the nation's Catholic bishops in June. About one-third of the nation's 45,000 priests are in this category.

"When I was asked what will happen to him, I was told that he will never be near children again but that he was one of them and he would stay one of them," said the father of the Suffolk man who said he was abused, relaying a conversation he had with Massaro's superior. The father asked that his name and that of his son, now 35, be withheld. Massaro did not return calls requesting comment.

The Conference of Major Superiors of Men, which serves the leaders of all U.S. Catholic orders, stood firm on the position to keep their members in the fold at their annual meeting in Philadelphia last week.

The Rev. Thomas Keating, executive director of the conference, said members of religious orders deserve to be treated differently because they took vows of poverty and obedience when they were ordained. Order priests live in a community, are not paid and are not permitted to own property or have a checking account, he said. In contrast, diocesan priests are paid a salary, allowed to own property and have their own holdings.

"A family doesn't throw out a member who has been convicted of crime, they continue to deal with the person. Why put them outside in a world they never had to deal with before," Keating said. "We think that keeping them in the community is a better way to protect the children."

Mark Serrano, a board member of SNAP, a network of abuse victims, said the insular culture of the order makes them favor protection of the abusers. "If someone in my family sexually abused children, I'd sooner find them a jail cell than a seat at my table," Serrano said.

Massaro is the founder and longtime head of the Youth Ministry program for the Northeast province of the Capuchins, which covers New York and New England and has about 165 priests. The Youth Ministry sponsors many activities to train young Catholics for leadership positions in the church. At its annual dinner dance, the Capuchins awarded the "Fr. Gabriel Massaro Award" to adults involved with youth programs in their parish. The award will be renamed, the order said.

Described as a talented preacher with a magnetic personality, Massaro was often invited to preside over local parish missions.

In 1979, at St. Margaret of Scotland parish in Selden, Massaro preached about vocations to boys who were ready to receive the sacrament of confirmation. Several of the boys accepted an invitation to spend a weekend at the order's retreat house in Garrison, N.Y.

"Massaro wore a cowboy hat and boots and the kids loved it," said the father of the then 12-year-old boy. His son attended two retreats in Garrison before the father became concerned about certain language and sexual references his son was making. He was also alarmed that Massaro and another cleric whom he only remembers as "Brother John" gave the boy their private telephone numbers.

When the disclosures about the church pedophilia scandal became widespread in April, the father and son began talking in detail about what happened at Garrison.

"Twenty years ago you didn't think about going up against the Catholic Church. But after all the stories about the priests came out we realized that now we had to stop him," said the father who called the Diocese of Rockville Centre to register his complaint.

For two months, the man heard nothing and repeatedly called the diocesan, law enforcement agencies and places where he knew Massaro had lived. It wasn't until he reached the Rev. Michael Banks that he got an apology.

Banks, the head of the Capuchin Province of St. Mary, said in a statement that he was "profoundly saddened by the actions" of Massaro especially because thousands of young Catholics went to Garrison for guidance on vocations and instruction on how to become leaders of the church. "The idea that any one of them was treated with less than Christ's love, much less having their trust and person violated, is so far removed from our reason for being that we can scarcely find the words to express our sorrow," Banks said.

The father said Banks apologized repeatedly last week for Massaro's behavior and questioned him closely on whether any other priests or brothers were involved. The Capuchins offered to pay for counseling, which the family declined.

During his career, Massaro hosted a 15-minute radio program, "In the Light of St. Francis," broadcast worldwide by the Eternal Word network. The Capuchins discontinued the show in June. Michael Dee, the longtime producer of the radio show which was recorded in Tampa, Fla., said he was shocked by the allegations.

"I would be surprised to hear that he had ever done anything to hurt anyone," said Dee, in a telephone interview. He described the program as a homily related to that Sunday's gospel. This abuse case is particularly thorny for the Capuchins because much of their work has been in guiding young boys to vocations and in training young Catholics. The new leadership taking over the Youth and Ministry next month will not be priests but married men with children.

Banks, the newly elected provincial for the region, declined to be interviewed.

The Suffolk father spoke to Banks last week. He said he was told then that Massaro had been suspended because of a recent complaint to the Archdiocese of New York from a Queens man who said he was abused at the retreat house in 1986.

Archdiocese spokesman Joseph Zwilling said the Capuchins were notified and the order pulled Massaro's faculties. The Capuchins then told the Diocese of Manchester in New Hampshire because Massaro was residing in a local parish staffed by the order. On May 14, Bishop John McCormack, the head of the Manchester diocese, forbade Massaro from acting as a priest in New Hampshire and ordered him to leave the rectory of Blessed Sacrament parish by the end of the week. Massaro is now living in a friary in upstate Beacon.

After years of frustration over what happened and two months of trying to press his complaint, the father involved is resigned to the outcome. "They told me that he ceases to exist as a priest. As long as he doesn't go near children, I guess I am satisfied with that because I can't get any more retribution than that," he said.

[GRAPHIC: Photo by Richard Harbus - The ministries center in Garrison. A Capuchin friar is accused of having abused boys, including one from Queens (A07 Q).]



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