Banished Priest Finds a New Ministry

By Justin Murphy
The Citizen
October 2, 2011

Dennis Shaw, a former priest at Holy Family Church in Auburn, moderates a Bible study group at Auburn United Methodist Church on Aug. 22.

AUBURN Early evening sunlight filtered in through the windows of a small carpeted room at Auburn United Methodist Church. About two dozen people, mostly women, mostly middle-aged, sat in a long oval, Bibles open to the Letter of James.

Nearest the door sat Dennis Shaw, the former priest at Holy Family Church in Auburn.

"Who would like to pray tonight?" he asked.

He wore heavy black sneakers with black socks, khaki shorts and a baggy green polo shirt. His graying brown hair was parted messily on the left and he sat looking at the worn, leather-bound Bible flopped open on his lap.

After several seconds, a woman across the room took up Shaw's call to prayer and the group murmured "Amen" in loose coordination.

Someone read: "God resisteth the proud but giveth grace unto the humble."

Shaw, hunched over in a thinly upholstered chair, stopped her to interpret and to question: "God gives us strength to do the things we need to do. Do you believe that?"

Long before he moved to Auburn, before he helped found the city's first homeless shelter, before he was ousted from the altar on a decades-old charge of sexual abuse, Dennis Shaw was a boy growing up on Rochester's west side, one of eight in a lower-middle class family packed into a house near the airport.

They were strong Catholics, their lives centered around the church. Two of Shaw's older brothers went into the seminary, and Dennis Shaw knew that he would wear the collar.

"From an early age, that's what I wanted to do," he said. "I never wanted to be a cowboy or a fireman or an astronaut."

He attended high school at St. Andrew's then moved on to St. Bernard's for theology. He enjoyed his life and his studies, but a rebellious streak developed early.

"I didn't always keep all the rules," he recalled. "I rebelled against my father, I always had some problems with the nuns. ... When we all discovered girls, it was a time we didn't all pay so much attention to the things the seminary probably wanted us to."

Shaw also struggled with alcoholism in his youth, going in and out of rehab centers until he finally got sober in 1980.

He was ordained in 1974 and spent the next three decades at St. Francis of Assisi and Mount Carmel parishes, living in one of Rochester's roughest neighborhoods and preaching to primarily Hispanic congregations.

He learned Spanish and came to love his work, arduous though it was.

"I would often tell people, 'I've got no solutions to your problems,'" he said. "'We've got lousy schools, violence, drugs addicts, poverty, buildings falling down around us, lousy police service,' and I said, 'I got no solution to nothing. The one thing I can do is share that life with you so you know you're not alone.' And I loved doing that. Because the worst thing in the world is to feel alone."

Someone in the Bible study group read: "Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you."

It was a Monday in the summer. The work day was over, and members of the study group brought forth their sorrows.

One woman's son was deploying to Iraq. Another with a young child was going through a divorce. A third had problems with co-workers.

Shaw listened patiently as those gathered shared their problems. He read on in James: "Humble yourself in the eyes of the Lord, and he shall lift you up."

"How do you draw close to God?" he asked. "Some people make prayer way too difficult. God's your friend. Do you need the right words to tell your friend what's going on? Praying is simply sharing with God. ... God will draw close to us if we draw close to him."

Dennis Shaw believes he was sent to Auburn in 2005 as punishment.

While serving at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Rochester, he was conducting funeral services for a man whose family was divided between the Catholic church and Spiritus Christi, a Catholic offshoot congregation without formal recognition within the church.

From the altar, Shaw saw the Spiritus Christi pastor in the pews and invited him up to lead the funeral Mass together.

"I understand it's not allowed, but at the moment it seemed like the right thing to do," he said. "And in fact, the family was very grateful we did it."

The Diocese of Rochester was less grateful. It sent Shaw from Rochester, where he'd spent his whole life, to Auburn.

"Part of the ongoing punishment, if you will, was to get me out of Rochester away from where people would support me," Shaw said. "They figured, 'Get him out of town and he can't rock the boat.' Especially not in Auburn, which is a traditional Catholic town."

The Diocese declined to comment on whether the transfer was punitive.

Shaw landed at Holy Family Church, a storied North Street church founded in 1834 by the Rev. Francis O'Donaghue.

He was quickly accepted into the new community and grew to feel at home. In 2007, he instigated the founding of Chapel House, Auburn's first homeless shelter.

"He's a wonderful man," Holy Family parishioner Virginia Drancsak said. "I just can't say enough about him. He makes you want to go to church."

The move didn't change his outspoken social stances, namely support for homosexuals, that put him at odds with the church.

Shaw maintains that the Bible speaks very little about homosexuality and more about fidelity, which he called a more serious threat to marriage.

"My job is to try and bring the love of Jesus Christ to the people I serve, I think," he said. "People higher up in the company are more invested in taking care of the company ... but that's not my job."

Someone read: "Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double-minded."

Though they gathered in a Methodist church it serves only as a meeting space, necessary after the Bible study outgrew a parishioner's house the men and women there were Catholics, mostly parishioners who followed Shaw.

"He was the ultimate priest," longtime Holy Family parishioner Gloria Cuddy said. "You could go to the man for anything, call him at any time."

When they called him Father Dennis, he corrected them gently: just Dennis.

"Does God want us to be gloomy and miserable and unhappy?" he asked. "Repentance always comes before conversion. You can't enter into a new life without turning your back on the old life.

"Repentance that means, first, looking at what's inside of me and recognizing what has caused damage to others. Second is truly grieving over what happened. Third is amending your action so you're sure it doesn't happen again."

It was two weeks before Christmas 2010 when Dennis Shaw's career as a priest came to an end.

In a statement, the diocese announced he had been placed on administrative leave, citing an "allegation of sexual abuse of a minor dating back to the late 1970s," but provided no further details.

Shaw learned of the action through a phone call from the chancellor of the diocese, then met with the bishop. He said the suspension came as a shock, but declined to discuss the incident in question.

"Nobody will ever know the truth except me and one other person," he said. "Nobody else is going to find it. But that's OK. You can't go back, so you move on."

He asked to address the Holy Family congregation in the bulletin, but the diocese denied that request, he said.

Gloria Cuddy, a longtime Holy Family parishioner, said she felt let down by Bishop Matthew Clark, who didn't come to the church for several months after Shaw's dismissal.

"He took his damn time coming," she said. "We were just left hung out to dry. It was just a big hurt."

Diocese spokesman Doug Mandelaro said the bishop's schedule is set in advance, and that he came as soon as he possibly could.

Shaw's case is currently before the Diocesan Review Board, which will make a recommendation to the Bishop Clark, Mandelaro said. Clark then forwards the case to the Vatican, where the maximum penalty is involuntary laicization, or a permanent stripping of all priestly duties.

"The Diocese of Rochester has an obligation to protect our children and to help create a safe environment for parishioners. We investigate allegations of sexual abuse very carefully," the diocese said in a statement. "Our sole purpose is to investigate the facts of a complaint, make a determination and take appropriate action if the allegation is credible."

That determination will happen without Shaw's participation.

"It's not a process I wanted to be involved in," he said. "Would I like to (be a priest) again? Yes, but it'll never happen. ... Not unless there's reincarnation. They probably wouldn't like that either."

Someone read: "Speak not evil of one another, brethren. ... There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who art thou that judgest another?"

One man raised his hand and shared a story about a friend who couldn't resist talking behind others' backs. Everyone else shook their heads sadly.

The passages from James weren't chosen for their insight into Shaw's circumstances; he chose that book, he said, because it's short enough to get through with a group.

"Gossip unfortunately, there's a lot of people that take a lot of joy in that," Shaw told the circle. "It's so destructive. You destroy someone's good name and it's gone. ... Where do we get off thinking other people's sins are worse than our own?"

Shaw now works part-time at the YMCA, arriving at 4:30 a.m. to open the doors, and at Cheche Funeral Home.

"It's been very difficult being away from the people I care about," he said. "If it weren't for the love and faith of the people of this town, I don't know whether I would have made it through the last nine months. ... Even though I got sent here as a penance and it wasn't my choice, it's my choice to stay here."

He still attends Mass, either at Holy Family or at a Hispanic church in Rochester, where much of his family still lives. He visits ill ex-parishioners and attends funerals and hopes to retire to Puerto Rico, where he has a home.

In the meantime, while waiting for a ruling from on high, Shaw gathers a few dozen followers once a week to pray. He counts them among his closest supporters, and they are fiercely loyal to him.

"It's like they crucified Christ all over again," Gloria Cuddy said. "They treated him like a damn criminal he didn't kill anybody!"

Asked about the allegations against Shaw, Cuddy insisted that she "never would believe it in 100 years," then paused before continuing.

"I think about, what if it was my daughter (who was abused)? How would I feel?" she said. "I don't know. I'm a forgiving person. ... I don't know how I feel about that."

Besides the Bible study, Shaw is also partnering with psychologist Johanna Smith-Ellis to offer a combination of clinical psychology and spiritual guidance.

That enterprise will specifically target at-risk groups like addicts' family members, caregivers, depressed teenagers and gays and lesbians, he said.

"I'm not big on piety; I'm not big on lots of churchy services. If we've got faith, let's make something happen," Shaw said. "There are other ways to do what I was doing. That's what I'm trying to find now, are ways for us to gather and lift each other up and make life better."


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