Fissures in a Grand Church

By Patrick Healy
New York Times
August 29, 2004

OYSTER BAY, N.Y. - St. Dominic's Roman Catholic Church sits like a crown on a steep hill overlooking this old Gold Coast hamlet. Perched at the highest point in town, its chapel is a century-old edifice of granite and stained glass where billionaire moguls and Wall Street financiers worship alongside hairdressers and immigrant cooks.

But right now, many members of the 3,000-family congregation say St. Dominic's is a church divided. Different factions attend different Masses. Old friendships are strained. When the service pauses for parishioners to embrace one another as a sign of peace, some avoid shaking certain hands, said Rich Cieciuch, a longtime parishioner and cantor at the 9 a.m. Sunday Mass.

The question that has split the church, already scarred and scandalized by allegations of abuse against five parish priests, is whether or not the pastor, Msgr. John A. Alesandro, who has been at St. Dominic's for two years, should continue to serve.

Msgr. John A. Alesandro was on a team that reviewed cgarges against priests.

There is broad agreement that on one side are more than 300 parishioners who are critical of Monsignor Alesandro, 63, especially of his past tenure as a member of a three-person team that reviewed and dealt with allegations of sexual abuse by priests within the Diocese of Rockville Centre, which oversees Long Island's Roman Catholic churches. In interviews, more than a dozen of the monsignor's critics said the team had not dealt forcefully enough with abusive priests during the time the monsignor served on it, during much of the 1990's, and had not been supportive enough of those who complained of abuse. They want him to leave the parish.

Diocesan officials and hundreds of other parishioners support the monsignor, who has not been accused of any wrongdoing. Monsignor Alesandro himself said he would not resign under pressure from what he called "an organized opposition group."

One church member, Frank Ingrassia, described the situation by saying, "This is a badly divided parish."

Experts in American Catholicism say the dispute is a microcosm of a larger power struggle that has grown out of the sex-abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church. Lay Catholics across the country are trying to take more control in their parishes while church officials, citing tradition and hierarchy, often refuse to yield it.

It is a young movement with few successes, and Paul F. Lakeland, a professor at Fairfield University in Connecticut who studies Catholic laity, said he knew of no other church like St. Dominic's where the laity are rising up to oust a pastor. "The bishops and pastors are not used to dealing with this," Mr. Lakeland said. "The laity are realizing their responsibility as adults."

The move to remove Monsignor Alesandro has adopted a populist tinge. Some parishioners say the pastor should attend an open meeting to explain his work on the abuse panel.

Others, like Robert Quinn, would like to vote on whether to keep the monsignor; Mr. Quinn would like to see him leave. "Why should we just be dumb sheep?" he said. "This isn't their church. It's our church. It's everybody's church. Why shouldn't we have a say in who our pastor is?"

Several parishioners said Monsignor Alesandro could leave quietly and honorably if he sought a promotion and moved elsewhere in the diocese, but he dismissed that suggestion as "highly inappropriate."

Monsignor Alesandro has met with groups of parishioners, but he said a churchwide meeting would be angry, emotional and counterproductive. He defended himself in a homily, and in an open letter to the parish, and, he said, he is tired of the issue.

"It's distracting," he said. "It diverts energy and time from conversations that are building up the parish. My focus is not on this group. This is not the future of my parish. I refuse to fight back at them.''

For all its current troubles, this storied church has a flawless veneer.

It sits on six tree-dappled acres on the crest of Burtis Hill overlooking Oyster Bay. Its neo-Gothic granite chapel sits across the street from a sleeker, more modern church building, and historic homes have been converted to its offices and rectory.

Though the church draws working-class worshipers and recent immigrants, many members are boldface names in New York business. There's Charles Dolan, the Cablevision mogul; Charles B. Wang, the founder of Computer Associates and owner of the Islanders hockey team; Peter Quick, president of the American Stock Exchange; and the Sbarro family, of pizza-chain fame.

Partners at major Manhattan law firms, Goldman-Sachs bankers and Wall Street executives also attend.

"I looked at St. Dominic's as being the cornerstone of the community," said Chris Gallagher, a parishioner for seven years. "This is the straw that stirred the drink around here."

When Monsignor Alesandro arrived in June 2002, he was no longer on the team that dealt with sexual abuse cases by priests. He had also spent years as a canon lawyer and administrator in the diocese, and briefly served as acting bishop. Rumors abounded that he would one day be named bishop, and a common view among Long Island Catholics and priests is that he was sent to St. Dominic's to round out his résumé.

But the parish itself was buried in crisis. Msgr. Charles A. Ribaudo, the beloved, avuncular pastor known as Father Bud, had recently retired, citing health problems, but soon parishioners learned that Monsignor Ribaudo had actually been removed from his priestly duties after being accused of sexual abuse.

No criminal charges have been filed, and Monsignor Ribaudo has denied any wrongdoing.

Many older members of the church stood by Monsignor Ribaudo while others demanded explanations from the diocese. Other accusations of abuse by parish priests soon followed, and the pain at St. Dominic's deepened, church members said.

In February 2003, a Suffolk County grand jury that had been investigating sexual abuse by priests in Long Island churches dating back some three decades issued a 180-page report describing its findings in often graphic and painful detail as well as terse, and seemingly perfunctory responses from the diocese. Without mentioning Monsignor Alesandro or the two other members of the intervention team, the report lacerated all three.

"They failed to notify pastors of problems with priests in their parishes, and they never told parishioners of a priest's abusive past," it said. "The intervention team had one purpose, protecting the diocese."

Monsignor Alesandro waited a year before speaking in front of the congregation about the report. Last February he delivered a surprising homily rebuking his critics and asking the parish for its trust.

"I want people to trust me, be with me and talk with me, even if you don't agree with me," he told the congregation, according to an article in The Oyster Bay Guardian, a weekly newspaper. "I'm very upset that there's all this talk around me, about me and behind my back."

Monsignor Alesandro has said his role on the team was mainly to give advice on how canon law applied to abuse claims. He said priests accused of abuse were watched carefully and faced no additional abuse claims after they were re-assigned by the team. In a letter last April to parishioners, Monsignor Alesandro said he had also petitioned the Vatican to make it easier for abusive priests to be removed from their duties

Still, many parishioners said they were not satisfied. Since late 2003 small groups have been forming and meeting at members' homes after the 9 a.m. family Mass on Sundays, or outside the room where the children's choir practiced.

Mr. Quinn, who helped organize several meetings, said people complained that Monsignor Alesandro had not guided the parish past the pain of Monsignor Ribaudo's resignation and that he was less than forthright about discussing his role on the intervention team. Some said his preaching style was too academic and aloof.

About 350 parishioners attended each of two public meetings this spring in which a few people said they had been sexually abused by priests and had received little support when they approached Monsignor Alesandro. (He later denied the accusations.)

Some stood to defend the pastor, accusing his critics of heresy, while others said their loyalty had drifted.

"He may be a very good litigator, he may know the scripture well," Mr. Gallagher said, "but in two years, I don't think he's done a good job running the church. If he really cares about the parish, I would hope he would step down."

Monsignor Alesandro's supporters say he has restored stability to the parish. Jon Santemma, one of two parish trustees, both appointed by the monsignor, said he has pushed people to concentrate on positive projects, like renovating the cafeteria of St. Dominic's High School and building new soccer fields.

"The majority of people are sick of this," the other trustee, Gene Souther said. "They want the parish to get back and move on. He's not going to voluntarily leave, nor should he. The bishop is not going to remove him, nor should he."

Yet disagreements have flared up over how well St. Dominic's has weathered the stalemate. Monsignor Alesandro and the trustees say the church is healing, but more than a dozen parishioners - some who support the pastor, and some who do not - said in interviews that the parish was still suffering.

Mr. Gallagher said he scrapped his plans to run a casino fund-raiser at the summer festival. One woman who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that she stopped going to St. Dominic's.

Several parishioners said that attendance at Sunday Mass was down as much as 20 percent. Some said they have cut back on their donations, or are withholding them until Monsignor Alesandro leaves. Mr. Quinn said he bought $400 in lacrosse sticks for the high-school team to compensate for his refusal to give money during Sunday collections. Others said they now give directly to church-supported charities .

But Monsignor Alesandro said that Sunday collections have remained steady, and that any decline in attendance mirrors nationwide trends.

Still, Rich Nicklas, a parishioner, said some families switched from St. Dominic's to St. Edward's nearby, while others had stopped going altogether. "We've lost people all over the place," Mr. Nicklas said, adding that he hoped to stay neutral in the polarized parish. "On both sides there's a degree of intolerance, which is unacceptable. How do we bridge that chasm that exists right now?"


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