Students Weep for Rev.'s Woes

By Ralph R. Ortega and Robert Ingrassia
Daily News
April 18, 2002

Students at shell-shocked Bishop Kearney High School in Brooklyn wept yesterday for a beloved chaplain who has been suspended and accused of molesting boys decades ago.

Sister Joan McAvoy, principal of the all-girls Catholic school in Bensonhurst, used Kearney's closed-circuit TV system to tell students they won't be seeing the Rev. James Collins around campus anymore.

McAvoy tearfully read a letter from Collins after the head of the Diocese of Brooklyn, Bishop Thomas Daily, forbade the accused priest from speaking with students in person.

"It was a privilege to have been part of Kearney life," Collins stated in the letter. "It's been more than wonderful for me. It's been almost a taste of heaven."

Daily suspended Collins, 57, on Tuesday. He has been accused of molesting boys at a Queens parish prior to his assignment to Kearney in 1984, according to a source familiar with the allegations.

Collins could not be reached for comment yesterday. His letter did not address the accusations, McAvoy said.

The chaplain, known around campus as "Padre," was a fixture at Kearney. He helped ease the pain when several students and staffers lost relatives during the Sept. 11 attacks, and after a Nov. 12 plane crash killed an assistant softball coach and relatives of a student.

"I've been with you when you experienced a loss of family or friends, when you have endured testing, lost or won a game, attended a prom, had a new boyfriend and much more," Collins told students in his letter.

Collins also coached the girls softball team. Students were so enamored with the chaplain that after graduation, many turned to him to perform weddings, Baptisms and funerals.

"I've been giving back things to these girls that he taught me," said Gina Trani, 23, a Kearney graduate who returned as a physical education teacher and assistant softball coach. "He's a man of dignity and character."

Counselors helped upset students cope with their sadness. Many girls slipped letters of support for Collins into a cardboard box that the principal had set up in her office.

McAvoy said she told students to focus on the wonderful chaplain they knew.

"I told them an allegation is a charge that has not yet been proven to be true or not true," she said.

Senior Katelyn Lawler, 18, whose brother and mother died when American Airlines Flight 587 crashed in Belle Harbor, Queens, said Collins taught students to band together in times of crisis.

"I think everyone will become stronger after this," she said. "We love him. We're here for him."


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