Living with the Sins of the Fathers

By Ann Baldelli
The Day
December 2, 2007

Dennis Perkins inherited someone else's problems.

Perkins was just a little boy in the third grade at the Uncasville School when the Rev. Paul Hebert allegedly sexually assaulted James Fish in a church rectory in Pawcatuck in 1973-74.

Today, the Rev. Dennis M. Perkins is pastor of St. Michael's Church in Pawcatuck. He makes his home in the same rectory where the alleged molestation occurred.

And so it was left to Father Perkins to read a letter from Bishop Michael Cote at church services on Oct. 28 announcing that the Diocese of Norwich had agreed to pay a $170,000 settlement to James Fish, now 47, who had sued the diocese.

Father Hebert denies the charges that Fish's mother first confided to Father Perkins in 2003.

Father Perkins has been a Roman Catholic priest for 12 years, and the pastor at St. Michael's for the past nine.

"It's been difficult these past five years. It's been hard for a lot of us priests," he acknowledged, when asked about his involvement in the Fish case and the clergy sexual abuse scandal in general.

Father Perkins has had to make apologies for the sins of priests who went before him. He carries out his pastoral duties today with a heightened sense of what is and is not appropriate.

When he is training new altar servers, he asks parents to stay for the lessons. If he is measuring young people for robes, he enlists mothers to help him. If there is a church- or school-sponsored field trip, everyone goes on a bus, never alone with him in his vehicle.

"It's frustrating, I had nothing to do with this, but I just have to face it," he says. "This is what happened and this is what we will do about it."

While the scandal of sexual abuse at the hands of clergy rocked the church, Father Perkins now believes the problem was not isolated in Catholicism.

Following a recent meeting of bishops in Baltimore, The National Catholic Reporter reported that an independent study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice on the causes and context of the clergy abuse outbreak concluded that the scandal reflected "overall changes in behavior, attitudes, and media representations in American society" in the mid-1970s, when the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy peaked.

What had been a dirty little secret — the sexual abuse of children in all segments of society — was no longer being tolerated.

The preliminary study results, which will officially be released next summer, found there was nothing inherent in the Catholic Church that led to the abuse by some clergy. Furthermore, it suggests that other institutions had similar problems but that the church was singled out for media attention after stories about John Geoghan and Paul Shanley broke in Boston 2001 and 2002.

Regardless, there are many who believe the church should be held to a higher standard.

"Personally, I think everyone should be held to the same standard: sexual abuse of children is unacceptable, period," says Father Perkins.

But the church, he says, is made up of people who come from all segments of society, including those who sin.

He believes the Diocese of Norwich has made great strides in recent years with its Safe Environments Program, and is a leader today in the effort to protect children from sexual predators. And he knows the people he ministers to understand that the alleged abuse cases being reported on now have nothing to do with him.

In many ways, practicing Catholics are the ones who have taken the brunt of criticism in the fallout over the clergy sexual abuse scandal, Father Perkins says. For that he is sorry.

But he has no regrets about his own choice to become a Roman Catholic priest, even when it means apologizing for the sins of others.


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