Priest Denies Abuse and Refuses to Resign

By Pam Belluck
New York Times
February 26, 2002

A priest suspended by Boston's Roman Catholic Archdiocese over an accusation that he sexually abused a child 31 years ago denied the charge today and refused to step down, calling Cardinal Bernard F. Law's new policy of removing accused priests "unjust and inherently evil."

Speaking in a church packed with supporters in this city northwest of Boston, the priest, the Rev. D. George Spagnolia of St. Patrick Parish, said his suspension before the church investigated the charge denied him due process.

He said in an interview that Cardinal Law had "gone from protecting his priests to now just giving us away."

Father Spagnolia is the first priest to criticize Cardinal Law publicly for his handling of the widening scandal over pedophile priests in Boston. His criticism is also the closest that priests in the archdiocese have come to calling for the cardinal to resign.

Father Spagnolia likened the cardinal today to "Nixon in Watergate."

A spokeswoman for the archdiocese, Donna M. Morrissey, issued a statement today defending the suspension of Father Spagnolia and saying he had received due process.

The statement confirmed that the accusation was "from over two decades ago," but it said that after meeting with "the victim and separately with the accused cleric," archdiocesan officials "determined that there was reasonable cause to believe that abuse of a minor under the age of 18 had occurred."

Last month, Cardinal Law announced zero tolerance of priests accused of abusing children. The move came after revelations that officials of the archdiocese, including the cardinal, allowed a priest, John J. Geoghan, to continue working in parishes despite knowing Mr. Geoghan's long record of pedophilia.

At first, the cardinal said no active priests in the archdiocese had been accused of sexual abuse. Then the archdiocese suspended two active priests, then six more and then two more. Their names, along with those of about 80 priests no longer active, were forwarded to prosecutors for criminal investigation.

Some parishioners complained when their priests were suspended that the cardinal was ruining the reputations and careers of good priests in trying to make up for being too soft on abusive priests in the past.

In recent remarks, Cardinal Law said some priests accused of abuse years ago had been deemed "not to pose a threat" and had caused no additional problems. But he said, "Even such priests have been removed from their place."

Cardinal Law also said recently that seven of the first eight priests suspended had acknowledged responsibility for the accusations against them.

Father Spagnolia, 64, was the 10th priest to be suspended, and he said he was accused on Feb. 16 by someone who said he had been molested 31 years ago at age 13 or 14. At that time, Father Spagnolia was at St. Francis de Sales church in Roxbury, a neighborhood of Boston.

Father Spagnolia would not discuss the details of the accusation, but he said he was familiar with the accuser. This morning, before hundreds of parishioners and supporters, including the mayor of Lowell, Father Spagnolia, known here as Father Spag, said, "I have done nothing."

It was not clear today how the archdiocese would respond to Father Spagnolia, who sent the cardinal a certified letter saying he would stay as parish priest although he agreed not to say Mass or offer other sacraments until the investigation was completed. Officials of the archdiocese said they did not know whether their policy prevented Father Spagnolia from staying in the rectory.

"It is our hope that Father Spagnolia will abide by the administrative leave in which he has been placed and pursue his legal and canonical remedies as he so chooses," Ms. Morrissey said.

Church observers said today that it was unusual for accusations of abuse to be so publicly debated. The only highly publicized accusation of abuse that they could recall being recanted was the 1993 case of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago. A former seminarian accused Cardinal Bernardin of molesting him but later retracted the charge.

"I'm not saying there's never been someone who's been falsely accused," said Francis Schussler Fiorenza, a Catholic theologian at Harvard, "but generally you want to give credit to the victim because it's so difficult to come forward."

Father Spagnolia has squared off against archdiocesan officials before, first in the early 1970's with a fast and prayer vigil outside then-Cardinal Humberto S. Medeiros's residence to gain assurances that a new parochial school would be built. After that, Father Spagnolia said, he resigned from the ministry, and spent 20 years as a nursing home administrator, cook and owner of a Cape Cod bed and breakfast inn.

In 1992, he asked to return to the ministry and was assigned to the Lowell parish in 1998. Three years ago, he protested the archdiocese's proposal to establish a shelter for the homeless in his church's neighborhood.

At St. Patrick, Father Spagnolia appeared to have wide support.

"I just think this is a witch hunt," said Andrea Reilly, 61, a member of the parish council, "and it's a shame that he's done so much for us and to have something like this come up." The cardinal "protected the guilty priests," Ms. Reilly said, "and now he's crucifying the innocent ones."


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