Retired Priest Can Resume Limited Duties

By Trevor Maxwell
Kennebec Journal
February 7, 2008

Blethen Maine Newspapers

Maine's Roman Catholic bishop has allowed a retired priest to resume some duties, more than three years after he was forced to resign for covering up allegations of sexual abuse against a church volunteer.

In October of 2004, Bishop Richard Malone asked the Rev. Paul Coughlin to step down as pastor of Holy Cross and St. John parishes in South Portland.

Coughlin broke church policy when he failed to report allegations against a church volunteer, John Skinner, from the late 1980s. Coughlin also allowed Skinner to live in the rectory of St. John the Evangelist Church, without notifying the parish or diocesan leaders about the claims. Although no one in South Portland ever accused Skinner of abuse, Malone scolded Coughlin for putting children there at risk.

Skinner was later convicted and sentenced to five years in prison for sexually abusing two boys. Both victims participated in youth programs at St. Mary of Lourdes Catholic Church in Lincoln, where Skinner volunteered. Besides protecting Skinner, Coughlin was found to have had "inappropriate physical contact" with a minor in 1985, when he served at St. Mary's Church in Bangor, according to the diocese. But that contact did not amount to sexual abuse, and Coughlin was never charged with any crime or punished by the church for the incident.

On Wednesday, the diocese acknowledged that Bishop Malone told Coughlin in November that he could return to the ministry on a limited basis. Coughlin is allowed to celebrate Mass if a priest is sick or on vacation, said diocesan spokeswoman Sue Bernard. He can also conduct weddings, funerals and other official functions.

But Coughlin, 73, will not be allowed to minister full time at a parish. He also is not allowed any duties in South Portland, Bangor or Wells. Those are the parishes where Coughlin associated with Skinner.

In a letter released publicly by Malone at the time of Coughlin's resignation in 2004, the bishop said he would reconsider the move after a "reasonable period of time."

Malone issued a statement on Wednesday saying that time has come. "I believe Fr. Coughlin has had adequate time to reflect on his actions," Malone said. "As a retired priest, he will not be assigned to any regular ministry, nor will he be allowed to minister in Wells, Bangor or South Portland where he associated with John Skinner and where harm and offense was caused to the communities. His presence could cause divisiveness within these parishes today.

"Instead, I am allowing him to respond to requests by other parishes to celebrate the Eucharist or perform any other priestly functions on a fill-in basis," Malone said in the statement.

Coughlin, originally from Woburn, Mass., has also served in parishes in Oakland, Augusta, Waterville and Rumford. Malone's decision brought a mix of strong reactions on Wednesday.

Catherine Morin Campbell, her husband and three children attended Holy Cross in South Portland when Coughlin was pastor there. Campbell felt betrayed when she learned about Coughlin's behavior, and is now outraged that he has been allowed to resume some of his previous duties.

"That bothers me a lot, that Paul knew that (Skinner) was a pedophile, and let him live at the rectory and thought it would be OK. Well, it's not OK," Campbell said.

She stopped attending church about a year ago, and has been part of the Catholic reform movement in Maine, calling for the diocese to do more to prevent abuse and help victims.

"They don't want to change, and they are not going to change," Campbell said of the diocese.

Paul Kendrick of Freeport, a prominent advocate for abuse victims, also criticized the decision.

"Bishop Malone's reinstatement of Father Coughlin is a return to the ways of the past, when priests who abused children, and priests and bishops who covered up for the abusers were not held responsible and accountable for their actions," Kendrick said. Sybil Riemensnider of South Portland was happy to hear that Coughlin can once again minister, even if it is not a full-time assignment. "I am very supportive of this. I'm pleased that he is back, and I just wish it had been sooner," she said.

Riemensnider, a longtime parishioner and member of the finance committee at Holy Cross, expressed disappointment that Coughlin is not allowed to work in her city. She said Coughlin was supportive of the food pantry that she and other church members established.

"I know that he is a good person," she said. "He was the kind of priest that I wanted to have."


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