Ex-Cape Pastor Faces Allegation of Child Porn

By Sean Gonsalves and Eric Williams
Cape Cod Times [Massachusetts]
November 2, 2004

NEW BEDFORD - The former pastor of St. Francis Xavier Church in Hyannis, the Rev. Stephen A. Fernandes, has been placed on administrative leave by the Fall River Diocese because "a credible allegation of illegal activity has been made against him," according to a statement released by the diocese yesterday.

The allegation against Fernandes, currently pastor of Our Lady of Fatima Parish in New Bedford, has been referred to the district attorney's office and brought to the attention of the Massachusetts Department of Social Services, the statement said.

Bristol County District Attorney Paul F. Walsh Jr. announced yesterday he had received a request for investigation from the diocese concerning violations of child pornography laws.

Walsh also said that a computer had been seized and is the subject of a forensic examination. Though Walsh's office would not offer many specifics, Walsh did commend Fall River Diocese Bishop George Coleman for his direct and prompt action in the matter.

The Fall River Diocese comprises 101 parishes in Southeastern Massachusetts, including 22 parishes on the Cape and islands.

Parishioners of Our Lady of Fatima were informed of the situation at Masses last weekend. Only later was it learned that the allegation involved child pornography.

According to The Standard-Times of New Bedford, the announcement to parishioners was made during Sunday Masses by Monsignor John A. Perry, vicar general for the diocese, who ranks second only to Coleman.

Parishioners told The Standard-Times that the mood in the church was "like a funeral."

Fernandes has been pastor at Our Lady of Fatima since mid-2002, having been transferred from St. Francis Xavier Parish in Hyannis by former Fall River Bishop Sean P. O'Malley, who was chosen as the successor to Cardinal Bernard Law to lead the Boston Archdiocese after the clergy sex-abuse scandal.

According to Our Lady of Fatima parishioners, as pastor, Fernandes moved to make long-overdue improvements at the church and its parish hall, adding air conditioning and expanding the parking area.

"A wonderful person"

"We always loved that priest," one woman told The Standard-Times. "He's a wonderful person. He'd give you his heart and soul."

Asked whether Perry, who broke the news about the allegations to parishioners, was at all specific about the allegation, the woman responded: "He said nothing of the sort. All they said was that he is on administrative leave."

An only child, Fernandes entered St. John's Seminary in Brighton as one of a group of 13 Bishop Stang High School graduates to begin religious studies in 1967, the largest group in Stang history.

He was ordained a deacon in St. Mary's Parish, New Bedford, in 1975 by Bishop Daniel A. Cronin. He was ordained a priest a year later after serving as assistant at St. John the Evangelist Church in Attleboro.

He then served one year at Holy Name Parish in New Bedford before being assigned in 1977 to St. Peter and Paul in Fall River as assistant pastor.

Anti-abortion activist

Cronin reassigned him to St. James Church in New Bedford in 1984, and in 1990 his duties were expanded to include director of the Pro-Life Apostolate of the Fall River Diocese.

At the time, Fernandes said an increase in respect for human life "cannot be accomplished in an office, but only in the homes and hearts of God's people."

He also served as director of the marriage preparation program for the diocese's New Bedford deanery and as auditor for the diocesan Marriage Tribunal.

He was later transferred to Christ the King Church in Mashpee and then in 1993 back to St. Peter and Paul in Fall River.

In 2000, O'Malley transferred Fernandes to one of the Cape's largest parishes, St. Francis Xavier in Hyannis.

A longtime parishioner of St. Francis, who did not want to be named, said yesterday that she recalled Fernandes being at St. Francis, especially his involvement in anti-abortion activities.

The allegations were a surprise, the parishioner said. She recalled Fernandes explaining his move to New Bedford as being prompted by the pastor's desire to live near his elderly father in Fairhaven.

Honored for work

Already prominent among anti-abortion activists in the Fall River Diocese, in 1997 Fernandes publicly joined the debate over congressional legislation to ban "partial birth" abortion.

In the Oct. 29 edition of The Anchor, the diocesan newspaper, a captioned photo notes that Fernandes was recently awarded the Ignatius O'Connor Award, honoring him for his work as the diocesan director of the Pro-Life Apostolate.

On Page 2 of the Anchor is a photo of Fernandes holding the award at the ceremony that was sponsored by Massachusetts Citizens for Life, a Catholic anti-abortion organization.

Smiling, and standing next to Fernandes are Coleman and Peg Whitbred, president of the Massachusetts Citizens for Life Executive Committee.

According to the diocesan Web site, the Pro-Life Apostolate's aim is to develop and coordinate "programs at the diocesan and parish levels to instill respect for human life. Sponsors Project Rachel, a confidential healing ministry for men and women hurting from past abortions."

The Web site also states that administrative leave involves transferring the alleged offender to another residence, the private celebration of Mass, and restriction of his celebration of the sacraments. The alleged offender will not be permitted to celebrate Mass publicly, to wear clerical garb, or to present himself or herself as a priest or religious brother or sister.

The diocese will continue to pay the salary and benefits of a cleric while on administrative leave.


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