Priest Emerges As Test Case for Church

By Michael Paulson
Boston Globe
February 26, 2002

The Rev. D. George Spagnolia says he's not a child molester.

But yesterday he declared himself ready to become the test case for just how much evidence the church needs to remove a priest accused of that crime, and just what kind of power priests have in a hierarchical church.

Spagnolia is loudly asserting his innocence, has retained secular and canon lawyers, and is vowing to do whatever it takes to restore his job and his reputation. He is the first of 10 priests ousted in the Archdiocese of Boston in the last seven weeks to refuse to quietly disappear.

"When I was ordained in 1964, my embracing the joys, responsibilities, and burdens of the Catholic priesthood did not abrogate my rights as an American citizen," said Spagnolia, the pastor of St. Patrick's Church in Lowell, at a news conference yesterday. "I demand due process."

According to a number of lawyers interviewed yesterday, Spagnolia has little recourse under civil law: It is virtually impossible for a minister to bring an employment law case against a religious denomination because of the constitutional separation of church and state. Spagnolia's only real option - and his own lawyer acknowledges as much - is to bring a challenge under the code of canon law, the universal rules of the Catholic Church, which bind both Cardinal Bernard F. Law and his priests. Canon law, last updated in 1983, spells out the procedure for the removal of a pastor, and allows Spagnolia to challenge his ouster all the way to the Vatican.

"Priests do have rights under the code of canon law, and those rights must be respected," said the Rev. Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, an organization that represents Catholic priests. "Priests can and do challenge their removal."

Spagnolia has begun the process of challenging his ouster by declining to quit.

"Dear Cardinal Law," Spagnolia wrote in a letter he released yesterday. "Please be advised that pursuant to canon law, I oppose the cause for which you have invited my resignation . . . I notify you that I am refusing your invitation to resign my office of pastor."

Law's spokeswoman, Donna M. Morrissey, said yesterday that the church fully respects Spagnolia's right to challenge his ouster. She said the church has taken no position on his guilt or innocence - it has merely determined that there is "reasonable cause" to believe a 31-year-old allegation by one person - and that if Spagnolia is vindicated, the church will restore him to his position and seek to repair his reputation.

Eileen M. Donoghue, Spagnolia's attorney, said she will immediately seek to win Spagnolia the right to continue to live in the rectory, which he was ordered to vacate last week when he was temporarily removed as pastor. The archdiocese has already promised to continue to provide Spagnolia with health insurance and the standard stipend for a priest, but that $1,400 per month, presupposes free housing.

Morrissey said canon lawyers are still trying to determine whether Spagnolia will be allowed to continue to live in the rectory. Spagnolia has voluntarily agreed not to celebrate Mass or other church sacraments.

Under canon law, to permanently remove Spagnolia, Law must now invite Spagnolia to submit a written report outlining his objections, and then to consider the matter with two other priests before removing him or naming a replacement pastor. The removal can be appealed to the Vatican. But the odds are stacked against priests in this process, according to canon lawyers.

"Bishops generally get their way," said Kelly O'Donnell, a canon lawyer from Maine.

And Charles M. Wilson, executive director of the St. Joseph Foundation, a Texas organization specializing in canon law, said, "If Cardinal Law wants to remove him as pastor, he's going to be able to do it. He just has to go through a process."

Several lawyers interviewed yesterday said that Spagnolia has essentially no shot at winning his job back through the civil courts and that even a defamation case against the archdiocese would be tough to win. "No court is going to determine for the Catholic Church who is going to be a priest and who isn't," said Eric M. Lieberman, a New York city lawyer who specializes in civil liberties and religious freedom cases.

"The Supreme Court and virtually every court I've ever heard of has clearly stated that the issue of who is going to preach and who is going to be a minister is one exclusively for churches and religious bodies to decide themselves. There is no issue of civil law."

Harvey Silverglate, a Boston lawyer who specializes in civil liberties cases, agreed. He said Spagnolia would also have a tough time winning a defamation case, because "I don't think the church defames the priest by making a truthful statement that there has been a complaint."

Spagnolia yesterday questioned whether the archdiocese followed its rules for investigating allegations of sexual abuse, because, he said, it had not convened a review board to consider the allegations.

But Morrissey issued a detailed defense of the church's conduct. She said the cardinal's delegate, the Rev. Charles J. Higgins, met with the alleged victim and the priest, determined that there was a "reasonable cause" to believe the allegation, and recommended that Law remove Spagnolia temporarily, which is allowed under church policy. She said a review board will be convened to reassess the situation.

Morrissey said that not only did the archdiocese offer spiritual and psychological counseling to the victim, and outreach to the parish, but that it has fully respected "the civil and canonical rights of the accused, while seeking to assist him."

"Our actions were consistent with those required by the policy of the Archdiocese of Boston," Morrissey said. "Father Spagnolia does have a right under canon law to challenge this decision by the Archdiocese of Boston."

Her comments contained significantly more wiggle room than last week, when the archdiocese declared Spagnolia had been "removed . . . from any assignment in the Archdiocese of Boston." Yesterday's statement said that, until a review is completed, Spagnolia will not hold an assignment and that he "is temporarily relieved of his duties as pastor."

"All allegations of sexual misconduct with minors are taken with the utmost seriousness, respecting the rights of both the person making the allegations and the cleric accused," Morrissey said.

She said the church is praying for victims and their families, but also "we hold in our prayers those priests who have been accused and we hope for a judicious and expedient resolution."


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