Spagnolia Begins New Chapter

By Jason Lefferts
Lowell Sun (Lowell, MA)
May 3, 2002

In his striped rugby shirt, gray sweatpants and bare feet, the Rev. D. George Spagnolia looks like anyone else moving into a small Beacon Hill apartment.

His ancient one-bedroom home has old wood floors, low ceilings and a small kitchen stocked with just a little pasta, sauce, hot chocolate mix, and a few other items. He's only been in the apartment two days, but Spagnolia is already getting settled in.

The move to Boston from Cape Cod is the next step in Spagnolia's rebound from claims of sexually molesting a 14-year-old and his acknowledgment of his homosexuality. Suspended by the Archdiocese of Boston, the former pastor of St. Patrick's Church had lived at a friend's house in Barnstable since leaving his parish in early March.

Living alone, Spagnolia spent the last few weeks visiting with Cape friends, walking the beaches, taking photographs of sunrises and sunsets, and working on the outline of a book. But he tired of the solitude, and looks forward to city life.

"[The time on the Cape] made me realize that I'm really a city boy at heart. The isolation was a little bit more than I wanted," Spagnolia said. "You can feel alone and not be lonely. I think I expressed to friends and others that perhaps the biggest thing I've had to deal with is I don't belong anywhere."

With a one-year lease on his new apartment, Spagnolia hopes to begin to grow some roots again, back in the city atmosphere he loves. Still unsettled, however, is his status as a priest. In two months, Spagnolia has gone from the epicenter of the sex-abuse scandal ripping through the Catholic Church to one of its fringe characters.

Spagnolia has taken his case to the Vatican, tired of waiting for action from the archdiocese, which has ignored him since he defiantly proclaimed his innocence and called for Cardinal Bernard Law's resignation in February His canon lawyer is working on getting his case attention in Rome, but Spagnolia is not expecting a quick resolution.

"That's going to be a long, drawn-out process," Spagnolia said. "With the cardinals having had their meeting, everything is going to be put on hold except for what they are forced to deal with until they form uniform policies."

Repeated messages left with the archdiocese this week for comment were not returned.

Over the last two months, Spagnolia has kept a close eye on the quickly unraveling series of molestation claims against area priests. From the beginning of his case, Spagnolia has called for Law's resignation.

"I think it's gone too far for him. I'm not saying just putting a new face in here is going to solve the problem you're dealing with issues and problems that are systemic," Spagnolia said. "I think he has just been too close to the problem to really have anything to do or say with the remedy."

Spagnolia said the archdiocese's biggest mistake was trying to cover up the molestation charges. To move forward, he said, the church needs to consider a drastic move.

"The only way I think the church is going to get beyond this is by doing what Pope John XXIII did in 1963 when he called the Second Vatican Council," Spagnolia said. "He said opening the windows of the church will let the fresh air in. I think the only way we get back is to do away with this culture of secrecy."

Spagnolia said he was pleased with the how the meeting between the cardinals and the Pope went last week, and feels that U.S. bishops should consider a "zero tolerance" policy when they meet next month.

"I wish the cardinals would have been as strong in their statements as the Pope was in his. I was hoping that it would not be just a case of circling the wagons and would not be an exercise in futility. I think some good things came out of it, like zero tolerance being something they are willing to look at," Spagnolia said. "I have no problem with zero tolerance."

His new home is in a classic Beacon Hill building. A narrow doorway off the street leads down a hallway into a small brick courtyard, where the tulips are in full bloom. Along with a smattering of furniture, his small apartment holds a few of his sunset photos from a trip to Maine, a picture of Robert DiNiro in his Taxi Driver days is set over the kitchen sink, and a cross hangs on the door.

"Now that I have a least a year lease, I feel able to establish some kind of roots," Spagnolia said. "The people of the city are what-you-see-is-what-you-get. There are no hidden agendas. You live in the suburbs, and you've made it. You protect what you earned."

In typical city-kid fashion, Spagnolia, 64, has been up front about his homosexuality after acknowledging it days after the sexual-molestation claim was charged against him. His homosexuality may be a difficult obstacle for Spagnolia to overcome, considering the church's recent reaffirmation of its reluctance to accept homosexuals as priests.

Spagnolia left St. Patrick's after acknowledging he was gay and admitting that he had lied about remaining celibate while on a 20-year leave from the priesthood that began in 1973. He said the attention to his case was distracting to the parish, and he moved from the parish rectory on March 3.

"That's going to be an issue. I don't know how they're going to handle it. It had nothing to do with my priesthood in any parish I've been in," Spagnolia said. "Sexual orientation has nothing to do with it. We have gay doctors, gay nurses, gay reporters. If you are skillful at what you do, your sexual orientation should not play a role at all."

As Spagnolia continues to wait to learn his fate, he says he has "an OK equilibrium," but also admits to being "angry and frustrated" about his situation. He said he didn't want to talk about being gay a few months ago, and the reaction he has gotten from some has validated that initial desire.

"There were people I thought were friends and things who don't even talk to me now," he said. "That's tough to take."

Over the last two months, Spagnolia's spotlight has faded as attention to Law and other priests caught up in the scandal such has John Geoghan and Paul Shanley has increased. Spagnolia says his situation is nothing compared to those cases.

"I'm angry that I would be, just based on an accusation, put in this situation and put in people's minds lumped in with the Geoghans and Shanleys," he said.

Other friends and parishioners, however, have been supportive, Spagnolia said. He said he has kept in touch with some St. Patrick's faithful, and was pleased to have a message handed out to church-goers on Easter. In four years, Spagnolia became a fixture in the city, and he said he misses Lowell.

"I would let them know I still love them, that I still pray for them, and not just St. Patrick's, but all of Lowell. I would tell them absence does make the heart grow fonder," Spagnolia said. "I would tell them to continue praying for me, and all of this in a mysterious way is the will of God, and at some point we'll know why I'm going through this."


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