Coonan to Fight Removal 'On Canonical Grounds'

By Kathleen A. Shaw
Telegram & Gazette [Worcester MA]
Downloaded October 23, 2003

WORCESTER- The Rev. Joseph A. Coonan, who was removed as pastor of St. John's Church more than a year ago, has been asked by the Diocese of Worcester to resign, but he has refused.

Joseph D. Early Jr., a lawyer who is Rev. Coonan's spokesman, said yesterday the priest has hired a canon lawyer and intends to fight his removal "on canonical grounds."

"He got a letter from the diocese asking him to resign," Mr. Early said. Rev. Coonan took a weekend to "pray on it" and then decided to fight, he said. He retained the Rev. Robert Gori of Methuen to represent him in church proceedings. Canon lawyers, who can be lay Catholics, members of religious orders or priests, are people with special training in the laws that govern the church and in handling church legal tribunals.

"He was removed more than 425 days ago and he wants to get back to work," Mr. Early said.

Raymond L. Delisle, diocese spokesman, said he had no information on the situation with Rev. Coonan and said the Rev. F. Stephen Pedone, judicial vicar, may know something. A call to Rev. Pedone seeking comment was not returned. Church legal proceedings are kept confidential.

"I am not a canon lawyer, but I understand that Father Coonan was never given anything in writing stating why he was being removed," Mr. Early said. Under the church's canon law, he is entitled to know what the charges are against him, he said.

Rev. Coonan still retains support within his parish. Mr. Early said at least 200 people attended a recent meeting to discuss Rev. Coonan's status with the diocese and how they can get him returned to the parish.

Mr. Early said neither Rev. Coonan nor anyone in the parish bears "ill will toward those who made the allegations." It is the diocese they are upset with because of the way it has handled the issue with Rev. Coonan, he said.

Denise Boucher Garofoli, member of the parish and a supporter of Rev. Coonan, has begun a rosary vigil that is held at 7:45 a.m. each Thursday in front of the chancery building at 49 Elm St. This is where offices of the bishop and other top diocesan administrators are situated. She expects to be there today reciting the rosary, a Catholic prayer devotion, with anyone who cares to join her.

She began the rosary vigil earlier this month. Sometimes she prays alone and other times people stop and join her, she said.

Ms. Garofoli said she is praying that Rev. Coonan will be returned as pastor of St. John's. "Only allegations were made against him and these allegations go back to before he was even ordained a priest. He has denied them," she said. She called Rev. Coonan a "truly holy man" and a "powerful force."

Thousands of names, in batches of hundreds, were collected from Catholics who support Rev. Coonan and were presented to the bishop, she said. Copies were also sent to Mr. Early.

Bishop Daniel P. Reilly removed Rev. Coonan in early August 2002, after more than 15 men from Oxford told state police that Rev. Coonan did inappropriate things with them when he was a teacher and counselor in Oxford during the 1970s. The bishop in a public statement said Rev. Coonan was removed "due to allegations of sexual misconduct with minors in the 1970s before entering seminary, which have recently been brought to my attention."


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