The Priests

By Cathy Lynn Grossman
November 11, 2002

Jay M. Mullin answers the phone like a priest: "Peace be with you." He passes time playing sacred music. He celebrates Mass daily.

But he can't be called Father Mullin, Roman Catholic priest.

He's in limbo.

He has been accused of sexually abusing a minor 31 years ago and sidelined, possibly forever, from the priesthood. He is one of 73 priests in the nation's 10 largest dioceses in this same murky territory: banishment that might never end.

When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops votes this week on a final policy for dealing with abuse accusations, Mullin will learn whether there will be any course of appeal for him to wear the clerical collar in public again.

The policy, first approved by U.S. bishops in June in Dallas, demanded "zero tolerance" for past, present or future abusers. They were to be taken out of ministry from the moment they were accused, whether they were egregious pedophiles or men facing a single vague accusation decades old.

In Mullin's case, he had always denied the accusations. But the church opted to settle the case quietly, and he has never had a chance to argue his innocence.

This week, the bishops will consider Vatican-required revisions to the Dallas policy that would set up procedures for dealing with accusations and establish due process for priests. One of those revisions -- using church courts called tribunals to judge the truth of abuse claims -- could have a direct effect on Mullin.

In 1992, while Mullin was serving at a church in Plainville, Mass., a man came forward and said Mullin abused him in 1971 when the priest served at St. Anthony's Church in Allston.

Roderick MacLeish Jr., attorney for the accuser, did not characterize the abuse but said it was a serious allegation reported both to the church and to police. The Archdiocese of Boston settled a $ 50,000 civil suit, over Mullin's objections. Spokeswoman Donna Morrissey declined to comment on the case.

After the case was settled, Mullin was moved quietly out of his job and sent for psychiatric evaluation and treatment. He spent months in church-ordered care, then lived in a home for troubled priests for several years.

He continued his campaign to establish his innocence. In 1997 he was given a limited assignment as an organist and adult choir director at St. Ann's Church in Wayland and eventually began celebrating Mass there as well.

But in 1999, Boston adopted a new policy: Priests with a record of abuse -- even a record never proven in criminal court and outside both the church and civil statutes of limitations -- could no longer serve in a parish. Mullin was transferred to serve as the chaplain at St. Joseph's Manor, a Brockton nursing home.

Then came the storm. Last fall, former priest John Geoghan, who eventually became one of the most visible symbols of the emerging scandal, was about to go on trial on charges of molesting a 10-year-old boy. Testimony and records would soon reveal that the Archdiocese of Boston had dozens of priests, many still in ministry, with ugly accusations of abuse on their records and had spent millions of dollars in secret out-of-court settlements such as Mullin's.

But one was suddenly gone: In December, a month before Geoghan's conviction, Mullin was consigned to limbo, tagged "removed."

Mullin, 62, does not know whether he would be eligible for a hearing in a church court under the revised policy because the church settled his case, essentially judging him guilty without a trial.

But he hopes.

Mullin, who lives year-round now in the Cape Cod house he bought as a retreat in 1979, still gets his $ 1,800 monthly stipend, he says. But he wants to work for it -- as a priest.

So he writes letters from limbo.

He has asked Boston Cardinal Bernard Law for permission to baptize his niece's baby or, someday, to say the funeral Mass for his aging mother.

Every day he goes to his mailbox, set on a cross at the foot of his driveway, to look for an answer. Nothing yet.


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