Parishioners in Vergennes Voice Support for Priest

Burlington Free Press (Burlington, VT)
June 3, 2002

VERGENNES — The Rev. Donal Ward made a startling announcement in late May at a Saturday evening Mass. He told parishioners at St. Peter's Catholic Church that he was one of six active Vermont priests about to be placed on leave while the state Attorney General's Office investigates allegations of sexual abuse. Ward said he is not a pedophile, and abhors pedophilia. He strongly denied any wrongdoing. Some parishioners wept. Others were angry. Then they drew together.

"There was a spontaneous outpouring of, 'What do we do to get Donal Ward out of this mousetrap?'" said parishioner George Jaeger of New Haven, who attended that Mass.

Jaeger and others in the church collected signatures for a petition, asking the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington to reinstate the 69-year-old priest who's a year away from retirement. They want Bishop Kenneth Angell to restore the good name of the man parishioners describe as an intelligent, friendly leader of the flock for the past decade.

The group collected 280 signatures within two days and sent the petition to the diocese. They collected 100 more signatures for a second petition submitted Wednesday. The 380 signatures come out of approximately 400 active and 200 inactive members of Vergennes' sole Catholic church. "We're doing all that we can to support him," Joyce Donnelly, a lifelong member of the church, said after Mass on Sunday, "and I certainly hope that he'll come back."

Two letters

Ward made his 20-minute announcement to parishioners May 18 and again at two Mass celebrations the next day. He and the five other active priests being investigated by the Attorney General's Office were asked by the diocese to leave their posts May 24.

Ward, staying with family in East Calais, is referring all comment to his lawyer, Peter Langrock of Middlebury. Langrock and Jaeger relayed the story of how they say Ward came to be linked to the Catholic Church sexual-abuse scandal.

While pastor in Marshfield and Danville years ago, Ward sometimes took boys from the churches to swim at an athletic club in Berlin. Ward, the boys and men using the club were naked in the locker room at times.

Ward was transferred to Barre and continued taking boys to the club. It was during his time in Barre, in 1989, that the diocese received two letters based upon a parent's belief that the boys were upset by seeing nudity in the locker room.

Langrock said the state Social and Rehabilitation Services Department investigated and found no impropriety. Officials with the diocese told Ward no wrongdoing had occurred and the matter was closed, according to Langrock.

"It was being nude in a men's locker room," Langrock said. "No good deed goes unpunished."

Jaeger said Ward took the boys to the athletic club in an effort to befriend them, to serve as a role model. "These are the days of Boys Town, Father Flanagan," Jaeger said. He said Ward relayed the story several times over the years in casual conversation with parishioners.

"He told us this repeatedly because he thought it was so crazy," Jaeger said.

Giving thanks

Jaeger said many who signed the petitions hope Ward will be reinstated at St. Peter's before the Attorney General's Office ends its investigation. "We'd all like that done," Jaeger said, "but we think that's unrealistic."

Gloria Gibson, spokeswoman for the diocese, said the diocese has granted some petitions, such as those asking for new Catholic schools in Middlebury and Springfield. Many petitioners ask that priests being transferred to another parish remain at their churches. Few if any of those petitions have been granted, Gibson said. Ward posted a letter at St. Peter's asking parishioners to welcome the Rev. John Kenny, chosen to fill in for him starting last weekend. He thanked the congregation for its support.

"Father Ward played absolutely no role in the initiation of the petitions," Langrock said. "He is certainly pleased by the virtually unanimous support he's had from the church."

'A good shepherd'

Jaeger said Ward is a U.S. Army veteran, taught at the University of Notre Dame, is well-traveled and well-educated. He is a good cook and a gregarious man who has made his lofty background fit into a congregation of "real Vermonters" — farmers, plant workers and small business owners, Jaeger said.

There was no mention of Ward's situation Sunday during 10:30 a.m. Mass.

Chris Perron of Ferrisburgh said as he left Mass that Ward came off to him as thinking he was smarter than the congregation.

His sister, 22-year-old Angie Perron of Manchester, N.H., said she wished as a child attending St. Peter's that Ward would do more for youth programs.

Both said their image of Ward improved after he spoke to parishioners in late May.

"He gave us a speech about what happened and what the situation was with him. I thought it was brave of him to do that," said Chris Perron, 20. "I appreciate him now better than I did before." Their brother, 11-year-old Matt Perron, said he has always appreciated Ward. "I like how he gave out doughnuts to the kids,"

Matt said. Ward distributed the baked goods during Mass to children too young to take part in the Eucharist.

Donnelly, 66, of North Ferrisburg, said she gladly signed the petition supporting Ward. "I think he's innocent and he was proven innocent a long time ago," she said. "I think the bishop made a big mistake." She hopes the Attorney General's Office concludes its investigation quickly so Ward can return to St. Peter's before he retires.

"He's been a good shepherd for us," Donnelly said.


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