Priest's Ouster on Sex Charge Stuns Parishioners

By David Kocieniewski
New York Times
December 19, 1998

During nearly 20 years as a priest at St. Denis Roman Catholic Church in this small seaside town, the Rev. Robert J. Parenti built a strong bond with parishioners who appreciated his compassion for the sick, his forceful demeanor and his mercifully brief sermons.

So a few quiet gasps echoed through the Gothic stone church last weekend when a letter from Bishop John M. Smith was read aloud during all Masses announcing that Father Parenti had been removed from his duties because of unspecified "sexual misconduct" with a minor 25 years ago.

The news was so stunning that some worshipers at Sunday's service quietly wept. Others were too stunned to stand up when the Mass resumed several minutes later.

"There was this sense of disbelief, of sadness," said Eileen Shea, whose five grown sons all served as altar boys during the last two decades. "You could just feel the pain everyone was going through."

In the week since that surprise announcement, much of the congregation's shock has turned to anger. But instead of focusing their anger on Father Parenti and his alleged transgression, the parishioners have directed the scorn at Bishop Smith for the way the Diocese of Trenton had publicly announced the allegations.

The charges were so vague — omitting the name, age and gender of the accuser as well as any description of what sexual misconduct allegedly occurred or what evidence supported the claims — that many of Father Parenti's supporters accused the church of McCarthyism, saying it was impossible to determine whether the accusations were true.

Church officials said their actions were carefully calibrated to inform the community while protecting the identity of the accuser.

Eileen C. Marx, a spokeswoman for the diocese who handled calls about the issue for Bishop Smith, said he thought it was important not to conceal the incident from the public because many Catholic churches were criticized in the last two decades for hiding allegations of sexual misconduct by priests.

But the Bishop's disclosure was so circumspect and so public that it generated headlines up and down the Jersey Shore and convinced many parishioners that Father Parenti's reputation would be forever tarnished — even if he was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing.

"It's disgusting," said Marilou Finan, a parishioner. "If the charges are true, he should be hung from the highest tree. But how do we know it's true if it's something that happened 25 years ago? And if it's not true, nothing will remove the stain of these allegations. This man has been smeared for life."

The parishioners' instinct to protect Father Parenti comes as little surprise to those familiar with Manasquan, a resort town of 5,300 residents, Victorian houses and wide porches.

Although Manasquan's population swells to 25,000 during the summer vacation months, year-round residents are a close-knit group, the kind of community-minded neighbors who throw a parade down Main Street before every high school football game.

"If there's a death in the family or a medical emergency, people here help each other," said Mayor John L. Winterstella. "It's a very old-fashioned, loyal community."

So loyal, in fact, that early last week, one elderly parishioner walked into the newsroom of The Coast-Star, a weekly paper based in Manasquan, and threatened to organize a reader boycott if the paper put a story about Father Parenti on the front page. Joanne Skrable, the managing editor, explained that the paper would have to fulfill its duty to cover the case — but not too aggressively. The story ultimately ran on the front page.

Ms. Skrable said the area was known as the Irish Riviera because of its heavy concentration of Irish Catholics. "So to most of the residents," she said, "a Catholic priest can do no wrong."

Father Parenti was highly involved in community affairs, traveling to one of the area hospitals every day to visit the sick and working on a number of interdenominational charities.

He also expanded the parish Beach Chapel, a small center originally designed to handle overflow crowds of worshipers in the summer, and expanded St. Denis's size by opening it year-round.

Amy Naelpa, 22, said Father Parenti was widely respected by children in the parish, even though he occasionally intimidated schoolchildren by scolding them about the sins they admitted during confession. But Father Parenti, 59, also had a legendary sense of humor. During a sermon delivered at a children's Mass a week before Christmas several years ago, Father Parenti asked that anyone who had been bad during the previous year raise his or her hand. Only one boy did, and Father Parenti immediately ordered him up to the altar.

"Father reached in his pocket, gave the boy a $10 bill, and told him, 'You're the only honest person in the whole church,' " Ms. Finan said.

Such memories make it difficult for parishioners to imagine him as being involved in any sexual impropriety, especially one involving a minor. The Bishop's letter said only that the incident reportedly happened in the early 1970's, when Father Parenti lived at St. Veronica Church in nearby Howell, N.J., and worked from a diocese office in Trenton. The pastor at St. Veronica, the Rev. Brendan Williams, said the unnamed accuser had no connection to his church.

But Father Williams said he had no doubt that the diocese had received a credible complaint and irrefutable proof before going public with the charges.

"The diocese wouldn't take such a serious action if there were any doubts," Father Williams said. "And Father Parenti, when confronted with the allegations, didn't try to defend himself. He accepted the help they had offered him, the counseling."

Father Parenti, who is now undergoing a psychiatric evaluation, could not be reached for comment.

But whether he ever publicly addresses the charges against him, leaders and members of the parish say the incident has created emotional scars that will be difficult to heal.

The Rev. Brian Butch, who was named acting pastor after Father Parenti's departure, said the parish had provided counselors from Catholic Charities to help parents of St. Denis's 280 students to explain the situation to their children. This weekend, counselors will be available to talk to all parishioners after Masses at 4:30 P.M. Saturday and noon on Sunday.

"There is a lot of pain and sadness," Father Butch said. "At a time like this, the best way to heal is prayer, to invite Christ into your heart."

Some parishioners say the church must try to ease the lingering tension. Mrs. Shea, a parishioner at St. Denis for more than two decades, said she went to the rectory Tuesday to deliver Father Parenti a Christmas card and a gift of holiday chocolates and was startled by the foreboding and defensive atmosphere.

"They usually leave the door open and welcome you in," she said. "People here in Manasquan and in our parish have always been friendly and open.

"But this time, they made me ring the bell and get buzzed in, like I was going through security. It was so cold. It was like being in New York City. You wonder, can things ever be the same again?"


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.