Popular Pastor Placed on Leave
Abuse allegations date to 1970s
Abuse allegations date to 1970s

By Richard Nangle
Telegram & Gazette
August 3, 2002

The Diocese of Worcester has placed the Rev. Joseph A. Coonan, pastor of St. John parish in Worcester, on administrative leave, based on allegations of sexual abuse of minors dating back to the 1970s before he entered the priesthood.

Rev. Coonan vehemently denied the charges and lamented Bishop Daniel P. Reilly's decision to place him on leave.

Diocesan spokesman Raymond L. Delisle said District Attorney John J. Conte offered the diocese few details of the allegations, other than that there were more than one them.

Rev. Coonan, through his lawyer, Joseph Early Jr., provided most of the details. He said the allegations stem from his work with heroin addicts at a crisis center that served the Webster, Dudley and Oxford area in 1977, 12 years before his ordination as a priest.

Mr. Conte did not return a telephone call to his office yesterday.

"I ask the parishioners of St. John's to pray for me, my family and for the truth to come out," Rev. Coonan said. "I will not let these false allegations deter me from my mission of helping those in need. In these times, I believe that many Roman Catholic priests are extremely vulnerable to false allegations."

Just last month, the Worcester Diocese defended Bishop George E. Rueger against an allegation of sexual molestation that dated to the 1960s. Unlike the seven priests, including Rev. Coonan, that Bishop Reilly has removed from active duty this year based on sexual abuse allegations, Bishop Rueger continues to serve the diocese.

Mr. Delisle said the situations are not similar and have to be handled differently.

"We're talking about a priest and not a bishop," Mr. Delisle said. "Bishops are assigned by the Vatican."

Local diocesan officials said Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo- the papal nuncio to the United States- decided there was no substance to the charges against Bishop Rueger.

No such defense has been offered to Mr. Coonan from the diocese.

"He's going to fight this as hard as he can," Mr. Early said.

Rev. Coonan's removal took effect Thursday, according to Mr. Delisle, "in order that the parish will not be spiritually burdened during the investigation."

Mr. Delisle said the diocese is cooperating with Mr. Conte's investigation.

Representatives from the diocesan Office for Healing and Prevention will be available at all St. John's Masses to assist parishioners in handling news of Rev. Coonan's departure. The office will hold a healing service at 7:15 p.m. Monday.

"I will be conferring with parish leaders to determine what additional assistance is needed by the parish," Mr. Delisle said.

"I ask for your prayers and support for those making the allegations and their families. Please pray for the parishioners of St. John, whom Father Coonan has served since 1995. In charity, I also ask for your prayers for Father Coonan and his family during this investigation.

"My prayers and encouragement are with all members of our diocesan family during these difficult times," he said. "We pledge our continued commitment to work toward the protection and well-being of children in our care."

Rev. Coonan is one of the more popular priests in the diocese, his Masses sometimes delayed by his own tardiness. He was active in helping the grieving in the aftermath of the December 3, 1999, Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. fire, which happened just a few hundred yards from his church, which is on Temple Street. His sermons have included quotes from Irish poets and the sound of rock music at Christmas.

Mr. Early released a statement from Rev. Coonan that read in part: "There are allegations that have been reported about me that are false and baseless in fact, and I intend to fully defend myself against these false accusations."

"I intend to defend my name, my character and my integrity, and I remain committed to helping people," he said.


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