Parishioners Struggle with Priests Suspended in Abuse Investigation

By Jeremy Roebuck
Philadelphia Inquirer
April 20, 2011

At St. Luke the Evangelist Church in Glenside, parishioners wonder about the fate of Msgr. Michael Flood, who was the pastor before he was suspended.

Msgr. Michael Flood served as a constant signpost in the lives of many congregants at St. Luke the Evangelist Catholic Church in Glenside.

He baptized parishioner Kathleen Seweryn's daughters and, years later, officiated at their weddings.

He often dropped by Donna Scully's math class at the parish school to offer impromptu lessons in church finance.

And as Joseph T. Simone's wife lay ill on her deathbed, Flood was among the first and last by her side.

But all that came to an abrupt end March 9 when the Archdiocese of Philadelphia indefinitely suspended the 71-year-old pastor - and 20 others - amid accusations of sexual impropriety with children.

Overnight, Flood was removed from his rectory and ordered to cut off contact with his parishioners. The priest who had been a regular presence in many lives was simply gone, leaving congregants to reconcile the man they knew for 15 years with the picture painted by his accuser.

"It's awful," said Seweryn. "It's almost like a death in the family. And what happens next?"

Her question has echoed across area parishes in the six weeks since.

So far, the archdiocese has declined to release any details on the allegations against the clergy members it suspended in the largest single removal of priests by any diocese nationwide since the church sex-abuse scandal erupted nearly a decade ago.

The archdiocese has hired Gina Maisto Smith, former Philadelphia prosecutor, to review the cases against the suspended priests and recommend what, if any, actions should be taken.

In the meantime, with no easy answers, church communities have been left to respond with what little information they have. Some have rallied around their priests, condemning Cardinal Justin Rigali's handling of the process.

"Nobody's being told anything," said Bernie Gutkowski, a parishioner at Sacred Heart Church in Swedesburg. "We're not too happy with the way the archdiocese is handling things. These priests that are accused, they're stuck in limbo, and so are we."

At Gutkowski's parish, the Rev. Andrew D. McCormick was removed in March with little explanation as to the allegations prompting the move.

Since then, a handful of parishioners have vowed to withhold contributions to the archdiocese until he is restored. They will direct their contributions directly to the parish when the collection plates come around, said Gutkowski, who operates a local funeral home and serves as a church fund-raising chair.

Meanwhile, some congregants at St. Agnes Parish in Sellersville, Bucks County, - home to suspended priest the Rev. Mark Fernandes - applauded the church's decision, describing it as appropriate until full investigations could be complete.

In a leaflet distributed at Palm Sunday masses, church officials said it would be unfair to discuss the cases of the accused before they had been fully vetted by Smith - a process expected to take up to eight months to complete.

But at St. Luke's in Glenside parishioner William W. Matthews III had already made up his mind.

"I absolutely believe that Msgr. Flood did not do this," he said. "Over the past four to six weeks, I've learned more about the case, and I believe it even more."

Unlike the cases of many of the suspended priests, the accusations against Flood are clear. They emerged in a civil suit brought by an anonymous plaintiff in Delaware in 2009.

The accuser maintains that Flood molested him more than 16 times in 1976, when he was a ninth grader at what was then Bishop John Neumann Catholic High School in South Philadelphia.

Flood denied the allegations when they emerged and openly discussed the case with parishioners, asking them to pray for him and his accuser.

At the time, the archdiocese agreed to let him remain in ministry after he voluntarily agreed to refrain from unsupervised contact with youths until the suit was resolved.

What changed from then to now? parishioner Matthews wondered.

"The right answer might have been to take Msgr. Flood out 18 months ago, investigate it, and put him back," he said. "But the archdiocese didn't do their job."

The first Sunday after the suspensions were announced, assistant pastor the Rev. John McBride read aloud a letter he intended to send to archdiocesan officials. The document described Flood as a good pastor and a good man, and pleaded with church officials to quickly complete their review so Flood, if exonerated, could return to his post.

Dozens of parishioners signed copies after Mass. Some had their children add their names.

But in the weeks since, Flood's case has been rarely discussed from the pulpit - even as his absence has been deeply felt, they said.

Sensing that others were seeking answers and an outlet to help, Matthews and a makeshift council of about a dozen parishioners have worked to learn as much about Flood's case and provide guidance to fellow congregants.

The group hosted a parish meeting Monday, to share what members knew.

Flood's personal attorney, Kathleen M. Reilly, described the suit during the gathering as "one of the most disheartening examples" of a personal injury claim she had ever seen.

Working with the legal team hired by the archdiocese to defend Flood, she told the hundreds of gathered congregants that the record of Flood's accuser "could fill a room" and that his "credibility will be an issue" at trial.

During a March interview with a reporter set up through his attorney, the man - who declined to give his name - acknowledged that he had struggled with drugs, and had been on and off disability payments for depression, a condition he blamed on the alleged abuse.

Stack that record up against the monsignor's, Reilly urged the group.

"There has never in 40 years been a complaint made against him. His personnel file is exemplary," she said. "The man you know is the same man on paper."

But overwhelmingly Monday, parishioners sought answers to one question: When will Flood be restored to his post - if at all? Reilly could provide few answers.

Parishioner Joseph T. Simone knew, though, what he planned to do in the meantime.

"We can continue to support this parish," he said. Flood "is coming back and we want St. Luke's to continue to be a strong, vibrant, religious parish. Let's give him that."

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