Flock Backs 'Father Spag'

By Christine McConville and Julie Mehegan
Lowell Sun (Lowell, MA)
February 26, 2002

Marylou Dubois stood on the granite steps of St. Patrick Church yesterday and wept.

She cried after watching the Rev. D. George Spagnolia give an impassioned plea to save his own reputation and those of other priests he feels have been unfairly condemned as child molesters.

"Somebody had to do it, and I'm glad it's him. ... This is the change that had to come. Priests must stand up for themselves," said Dubois, a parishioner.

Moments earlier, "Father Spag" stood at the foot of the altar and categorically denied an allegation that surfaced last week that he sexually molested a minor 31 years ago.

And he told the 900 supporters who packed the pews of the ornate church in the Acre that he would defy Cardinal Bernard Law's orders that he resign as the church's pastor.

Standing in front of microphones, wearing a simple black robe and sandals, Spagnolia spoke loudly and clearly: "I deny any allegation made against me. I have done nothing. I demand due process."

"Priesthood doesn't abrogate my rights as an American citizen. ... I will not be stepping down as pastor of this church," he said.

Throughout his remarks, the crowd erupted in applause, and occasionally gave him a standing ovation. His supporters ran the gamut from city leaders to recent Asian immigrants.

"This is history-making," Spagnolia, 64, said after his public remarks.

"It's a politically charged issue, and I'm guilty until I'm proven innocent. This could be compared to the Inquisition," he said.

Late yesterday, Donna Morrissey, spokeswoman for the archdiocese, released a statement calling Spagnolia's suspension "temporary" and consistent with Law's "zero-tolerance" policy in dealing with priests accused of sexual misconduct. The statement claimed a representative of the cardinal met separately with the alleged victim and Spagnolia last week and determined there was "reasonable cause that abuse of a child under the age of 18 had occurred.

"Despite the time elapsed the allegation must be fully investigated and a final determination made."

The archdiocese acknowledged that Spagnolia has a right to challenge the decision under canon law, and stated that the suspension of his duties "should not be construed as a 'conviction.'"

Spagnolia told his supporters he'll appeal Law's action all the way to Rome if necessary. He said he'll honor Law's request that he not celebrate Mass while he is suspended, but he will not leave the Suffolk Street rectory that he's called home for the past several years.

Spagnolia and his lawyer, former Lowell Mayor Eileen Donoghue, called on the Suffolk County District Attorney's office to "act with all speed" in investigating the case against Spagnolia. The incident is alleged to have occurred while Spagnolia served as a parish priest in Roxbury in 1971.

However, a spokesman for the district attorney told reporters yesterday that the archdiocese has yet to release the name of the alleged victim or details of the allegation, making any investigation difficult.

To many supporters, Spagnolia has become an unwitting revolutionary as a pastor who is willing to take on the Archdiocese of Boston.

"He's the best one to do it," Lowell Mayor Rita Mercier said yesterday. "He reminds me of myself. He's a fighter, too."

News of Spagnolia's unprecedented public stance against church hierarchy spread quickly.

During a 5:40 Mass last night at St. Joseph the Worker Shrine in Lowell, before about 50 congregants, Rev. John Cox briefly raised the recent troubles plaguing the church, as well as Spagnolia's press conference, during his homily. Cox said he felt compelled to raise the subject so the faithful of Lowell know they may discuss it openly.

"Pastorally, I just thought it was important to open the church [to the discussion]," Cox said. "I don't want to talk about it. It's not comfortable to talk about it. But people need to know that they can talk about it."

Cox also called for a "prudent process" to deal with accusations of abuse against priests.

"It can not be done capriciously," he said.

Thomas Groome, a professor of theology and religious education at Boston College, said given the current climate, he is amazed no other priests have spoken up to defend themselves. Groome, author of the forthcoming book, What Makes Us Catholic, said Spagnolia's spirited defense is an important step.

"I think it's a healthy sign. I think the secrecy and the kind of old boys' network, the tendency to keep a stiff upper lip, pretend to go along with the leader, that type of military system is unhealthy," Groome said. "I think it's healthy to see that disintegrating."

Groome agreed with Spagnolia's assertion yesterday that he is entitled to due process under church law.

"When we suspend civil rights, it is a slippery slope that we do not want to go down," Groome said.

In the weeks following damaging reports that the archdiocese transferred defrocked priest and convicted pedophile John Geoghan between parishes despite allegations of rampant pedophilia, Law implemented a new zero-tolerance policy and provided prosecutors with the names of 80 current and former priests accused of sexual abuse in the past 40 years.

Last week, Spagnolia became the 10th priest, and fourth pastor, removed from active duty by the archdiocese following such allegations.

At yesterday' press conference, Spagnolia said the allegations were made against him on Saturday, Feb. 16, at the start of Presidents Day weekend. The following Tuesday morning, an associate of Cardinal Law called him and asked him to report to a Wednesday morning meeting.

Spagnolia insisted that he never had a chance to defend himself. He called Law's policy "unjust and inherently evil in its implementation."

"For my reputation, for my brothers, I cannot stand by and let this injustice continue unchecked," he said.

Many of the hundreds of supporters who filled St. Patrick yesterday took time off from work to show their affections for their beloved pastor.

Parishioner Walter Bayliss called the current environment in the church "like the Salem witch hunt. It's a shame that a priest of this caliber has to be sacrificed like a sacrificial lamb to take on the bureaucracy."

Lowell firefighters joined city officials and recent immigrants in the crowded pews in the church, which was built in the 1820s for the Irish immigrants who settled the Acre.

The Rev. Timothy Kapsalis, a priest at the neighboring Holy Trinity Greek Church, attended the press conference to support his colleague and friend. He said the widening scandal and the archdiocese's treatment "hurts the entire Christendom."


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