Holy War; Accused Priest Fires Back at Church

By Eric Convey
Boston Herald
February 26, 2002

LOWELL — A fiery priest suspended last week for allegedly molesting a teenager 32 years ago launched a blistering counter-attack on Boston's Roman Catholic hierarchy yesterday.

"I deny any allegation made against me," the Rev. D. George Spagnolia said to thunderous applause in the nearly packed sanctuary of St. Patrick's church.

"Let me now say: I have done nothing!" he told the crowd, which included local officials and many parishioners who took time off from work to support the priest.

Spagnolia, 64, said he is refusing an order to leave the rectory but will obey a demand that he stop administering sacraments.

Last week he became the 10th priest pulled from his church this month due to charges of abuse, and is the first of the 10 to fight back.

The accuser told archdiocesan officials that when he was 14 years old in 1971, Spagnolia molested him. The priest was then serving at St. Francis de Sales church in Roxbury.

Spagnolia yesterday said he has been denied "due process" under canon law and will not back down, challenging Law to produce proof, such as minutes of a meeting, that his review committee investigated the claim before suspending him.

For too long the archdiocese covered up for pedophiles, Spagnolia said. "We have now gone to the other extreme where all of us are going to be fed to the wolves."

"I believe that ultimately this case could very well go to Rome," he added.

A spokeswoman for the archdiocese, Donna Morrissey, said Spagnolia's rights under canon law are intact as long as he is allowed to appeal the action taken against him. He has indicated he'll appeal.

Morrissey said the Rev. Charles Higgins, who handles personnel matters for Law, found there was "reasonable cause" after interviewing the alleged victim and Spagnolia. But citing the archdioce's abuse policy, she added: "Responsive steps should not be seen as a conviction of the accused cleric."

"After the proper investigation, if the allegations are found to be groundless or false, the cleric is reinstated and appropriate steps will be taken to repair damage to the cleric's reputation," she said.

The Rev. Thomas Doyle, a Roman Catholic priest who authored a comprehensive 1985 study on clergy sex abuse in North America, said in a telephone interview from Germany that the policy is flawed.

"(Spagnolia) is right," Doyle said. "It's basically a spin. It's to recover some credibility for the institutions . . . they're trying to cover for their own lack of competence."

"These men, even if they're innocent, it'll never be the same for them," Doyle said.

The archdiocese also forwarded the charge to the Suffolk County district attorney's office.

During an appearance on New England Cable News last night, district attorney Dan Conley said Spagnolia was twice accused of sexual abuse in 1971 by his alleged victim, once in Roxbury and also at a location in Brighton Conley did not disclose.

"Again, we don't know his name," Conley stressed, adding that the case may be impossible to prosecute.

"On its face, 31 years after the fact, it doesn't look like it's a case that can exceed based on the statute of limitations," he said.

But David Propicio, a spokesman for the office, said the information handed over by the archdiocese contained neither the name of the accuser nor specifics about the alleged abuse.

"We have requested from the archdiocese the names of (any) victims from this case and all the other previous cases reported to us," he said. "We have not yet received those names. We have also requested (more files)."

Church officials have handed over the names of 25 priests but little additional information, Propicio said. "It's made it tough to go forward."

Asked whether Suffolk County would subpoena the files, following similar actions by a Norfolk County grand jury, he said: "We have not exercised that option yet." As of last week, 111 calls have come in to a clergy abuse hotline, he said.

Spagnolia dodged a question as to whether Law should step down, saying: "I think the cardinal should have his day in court."

But he added: "If I, as pastor of this church, lost all of my credibility, I would resign; therefore I think that any person who has any responsibility of leadership has to look at the credibility quotient, as did Richard Nixon in Watergate. Look at the credibility quotient, then make the conscientious decision."

Spagnolia said he gives Law "the benefit of the doubt" and thinks the cardinal is doing what he considers best for the church. Jeers from the audience suggested more hostile sentiments toward the archbishop.

Spagnolia said he does not plan to sue the archdiocese or his accuser. He is not worried about ramifications for his aggressive stance, saying: "What the hell else could happen to me?"

Supporters who filled much of St. Patrick's included local clergy - Roman Catholic and other - and hundreds of parishioners.

They posted signs on the doors with slogans including: "Innocent until proven guilty - unless ordained in Boston" and "There is no due process in cardinal's law."

Peg McAndrews said, "Richard Nixon knew when it was time to go. I think the cardinal needs to know that, too."

Deanna Quinones said, "We all believe in Father Spag's leadership and we want him to return."

"It's like a witch hunt," said David Bowles, a member of the parish council.

The Rev. Timothy Kapsalis of nearby Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church hugged a teary-eyed Spagnolia after the speech.

"This is totally unfair," Kapsalis said. "Everybody deserves a trial . . . It takes a whole life to build a career, build a reputation. And it takes a second to destroy everything."

Spagnolia is drawing the strength to deal with the ordeal from God, he said. I am nothing without the grace I've received through the Lord Jesus Christ."

Spagnolia also said he just began the sixth week of a fast.

"I started this fast when all of the stuff began coming out about John Geoghan . . . as a fast of reparation for the great injury that is being done to the body of the Lord Jesus Christ, for his church, and for healing," he said. "My intention is to continue that fast until Easter. The only way I have been able to do that is with the grace of almighty God."

Geoghan is a defrocked priest recently convicted of fondling a child. He faces more trials.

While awaiting news on his status in the archdiocese, Spagnolia is receiving his $ 1,400 per month stipend and health insurance.


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