Two Parishes, Two Priests, Two Reactions

By Jacob H. Fries
New York Times
April 18, 2002

The block around St. Kevin Church in Flushing had the look of an idyllic neighborhood yesterday afternoon, with chattering birds and a Mister Softee ice cream truck idling at the corner as parents gathered under shady trees to pick up their children from school.

They arrived in minivans or pushing strollers, and quietly chatted in groups of two and three. They waited anxiously to spot their children and escort them away. Most shrugged off questions about the sexual abuse accusations against their pastor, the Rev. James T. Smith, 71. One, without being asked, shouted, "Everything's fine."

The parishioners at the Queens church have had more than a week to absorb the news. "It happens," one man said. Like most of the others there, he declined to give his name. He said he, his wife and their five children had known Father Smith and attended the school.

The man had come to fetch his youngest son home for lunch. "Three of my four older kids were part of the altar service. Next year, he might, too," he said, pointing to his son, "and I wouldn't think twice about it. The tragedy has not affected my house."

A more agitated scene played out some 20 miles away, in a tight-knit neighborhood in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, which was reeling yesterday amid fresh accusations against another priest held in high regard. On Tuesday, the Rev. James Collins, 57, was put on administrative leave from Bishop Kearney High School, a girls' school.

His suspension, which followed allegations that he molested boys while serving in a Queens parish before coming to the school in 1984, was first reported yesterday by The Daily News. Encountering a group of reporters outside the school, students appeared shocked as they described a man they often confided in and whose advice they valued highly. Members of the softball team, which Father Collins coached, shouted, "He's the greatest in the world," as they strode to a game. Many students said they spent the day in counseling.

Debbie LaSelva, 43, a teacher's aide, said Father Collins had comforted her when her cousin was killed Sept. 11. "He was there for everyone -- the kids, the faculty, everyone," she said. "That's all I know about him. I don't know the other side. The allegations."

The principal read one of Father Collins's letters over closed-circuit television, students said.

"He said, 'I'm going to be O.K. I miss you. What's going on are just allegations. Pray for me. Don't think anything different about me,' " said Idaliana Guadalupe, 19, a senior. "Hearing his words, it touched me. We were all crying. I was crying myself. He's a good man."

In Flushing, the reaction of St. Kevin parishioners to the suspension of Father Smith seemed to have been dulled by the national months-old sex scandal that has engulfed the Roman Catholic Church.

What can you say about someone who has led your parish dutifully since 1989? "I think we've all been reminded that you can't judge a book by its cover," said a woman, who for the past 22 years has been a crossing guard at the St. Kevin school.

"I'm very upset," she said. "I think everyone is very upset. That's all I want to say."

A moment later, though, the woman added: "The newspaper has more about this than we're told here." Yesterday, a Newsday article reported that Michael Dowd, a lawyer for some of Father Smith's accusers, said the pastor had a second home in Amityville, N.Y., where he molested children in the 1970's and earlier.

In a letter read during Mass on April 6 and 7, Bishop Thomas V. Daily said Father Smith had denied the abuse allegations, which were made recently and involved "inappropriate sexual contact" with three minors at other parishes more than 20 years ago. The bishop said Father Smith was being treated for depression.

"This does not negate all of the good and dedicated priestly service that Father Smith has offered in our diocese," the bishop said in his letter.

Jennifer Lodico, 29, lives behind St. Kevin Church and said she had had a few run-ins over the years with Father Smith, who complained about her husband's noisy cars. Ms. Lodico said she was raised in the church, but had gone her own way. "I trust God," she said, adding that she teaches her five children at home. "I find truth in the Bible. But these people put their faith in an institution, and when it topples, they have nothing."


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