Priest Unafraid to Criticize Diocese for Abuse Scandals

By Adam Gorlick
Associated Press, carried in the Worcester Telegram
March 7, 2004

EAST LONGMEADOW -- From his pulpit, the Rev. James Scahill seems like an unlikely agitator.

He greets parishioners with a gentle smile and isn't afraid to encourage a laugh from his congregation with an ad-lib at the end of Mass. His easy way helped him develop a welcoming image and a strong following in the two years he's been pastor of St. Michael's Church.

But during that time, as more people have come forward to say they were abused by Western Massachusetts priests when they were children, Scahill has emerged as the most vocal clerical critic of the way officials in the Springfield Diocese have handled the allegations.

Unafraid to express his views that priests should be allowed to marry and that church leaders shouldn't be lobbying against same-sex marriages, Scahill took his first direct shot at the Springfield Diocese, home to 262,000 Roman Catholics, when he arrived at St. Michael's in 2002.

At the time, Scahill and his parishioners wanted the diocese to stop giving a $1,000 monthly check and $8,000 a year in benefits to pedophile priest Richard Lavigne, who was removed from ministry when he was arrested in 1991. Lavigne pleaded guilty a year later to molesting two altar boys.

As a protest, Scahill began withholding a percentage of weekly collections earmarked for the bishop's office.

The move put Scahill at odds with Bishop Thomas Dupre, who retired Feb. 11 after The Republican newspaper of Springfield confronted Dupre with allegations that he sexually abused two boys while he was a parish priest in the 1970s. On Thursday, the Hampden district attorney said he will present the allegations to a grand jury.

Dupre's lawyer, Michael Jennings, has refused to comment on the allegations and officials from the Springfield Diocese declined to be interviewed for this article.

"It was a tough position for Jim to be in," said Warren Mason, one of the parishioners who encouraged Scahill to withhold money. "He wasn't comfortable with it, and didn't want to be in the limelight. But we needed to get this message out that the Catholic hierarchy is not interested in the individual. They're interested in protecting their image at the expense of anything else.

"We're saying that the laity has to have a bigger say," Mason said. "Otherwise, you're not going to have a church."

Scahill went on the offensive again last September when he said he heard Dupre tell members of an advisory council in early 2002 that former Bishop Christopher Weldon in the 1970s destroyed personnel records of priests accused of sexual abuse in the mid-1970s.

Dupre denied making such statements, and both he and Scahill stuck to their stories during legal depositions held late last year.

Scahill's outspokenness has alienated him from some fellow clerics who criticize his approach.

"I think the problem is how he tends to go about these things," said the Rev. Bill Pomerleau, pastor of St. Jude's church in Springfield and a writer for the Catholic Observer, the diocese's newspaper. "Your job as a priest is to feel and reflect people's pain, but at times you have to lead them to go beyond that. I don't know if Jim has been able to do that yet."

Pomerleau credits Scahill for counseling alleged abuse victims, but said his attacks on the diocese put him "out there on a limb."

But Scahill's parishioners applaud his willingness to stand up.

"I'm glad he's doing what he's doing, even if he's out there all alone," said Madeline Martin, a parishioner who followed Scahill to St. Michael's when he was transferred from a church in Springfield. "Everyone at St. Michael's is happy with what he's done. He's willing to make things right."

Since Dupre stepped down, Scahill has expressed disappointment with how the diocese and the Boston Archdiocese have responded to the situation.

Scahill said he counseled the mother of one alleged victim last year, and left a telephone message for Boston Archbishop Sean O'Malley in November saying he needed to discuss "a dire matter that concerned the entire well-being of the church."

Scahill said the archbishop never returned his call. Officials from the archdiocese said they had no record that Scahill tried to contact them with the abuse allegations, and have said the priest should have at least followed up his phone call with a letter.

But Scahill says he's taken the lack of response as a sign that church leaders are still unwilling to deal openly and proactively with claims of clergy abuse. And until they do, Catholics will continue losing faith in their church leaders, he said.

"The whole hierarchy is imploding," Scahill said. "It's self-destructing. They're not being assaulted by the media or some kook from an East Longmeadow church. They've brought this on themselves."

Scahill, 56, was ordained in 1974 and served in parishes in Greenfield, Lee and Springfield before being assigned to St. Michael's in 2002.

As soon as he arrived, Scahill says he was approached by parishioners who were upset that Lavigne was receiving money and benefits from the church - something that priests are entitled to under canon law.

Scahill says he urged Dupre to stop paying Lavigne immediately and step up efforts to defrock the convicted cleric. If the diocese felt a need to support Lavigne financially, Scahill suggested that a bank-operated fund could be established for him that relied solely on donations - not money from the diocese.

When the diocese said earlier this year that Lavigne had been defrocked and will be kicked off the payroll on May 31, officials announced that a church-run fund had been started for defrocked priests with $100,000 worth of contributions from a handful of anonymous donors.

Scahill has railed against what he calls the "felon fund," and insists that's not what he had in mind when he spoke with Dupre.

"The only way to do it is to have a bank run it," Scahill said. "As long as we have any association with the fund, Lavigne has a connection to the diocese and that's wrong. And I would've demanded that there be no anonymous donations because we have to establish there is no church connection."

The Rev. Joseph Soranno, who Scahill names as one of his few friends, said he supports the actions of his fellow priest, but says he's one of the few clerics who does.

"A lot of priests feel he's the one feeding the fires, and there are priests who will treat him like he doesn't exist. But he's not out there encouraging anyone to burn down the chancery," said Soranno, pastor of St. Cecilia's Church in Wilbraham. "The people in his parish support him, and that's been his vindication. He has tons of support among the lay people."


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