Accusers, Backers Know Different Men
By Richard Nangle
Telegram & Gazette
August 22, 2002
Four years ago when he was considering marriage, Mark Bedard confronted a demon that had haunted him since he was a 12-year-old growing up in Oxford: He decided he could no longer repress the memory of sexual abuse he says happened at the hands of a camp counselor named Joseph Coonan.
He had already confided to his fiancee and he was going to therapy. But on the night of his bachelor party, he told a close friend, only to find out that very friend also claimed to have been sexually abused by the man. It all allegedly happened at a summer camp called Project Get Together, years before Joseph Coonan entered into the priesthood in 1989.
This year, when news of the priest sexual abuse scandal in Worcester County and throughout the country was becoming impossible to ignore, Mr. Bedard, 39, decided to go to the state police. He says about 15 people told investigators about allegations of abuse.
Earlier this month, Bishop Daniel P. Reilly of the Diocese of Worcester responded by placing Rev. Coonan on administrative leave. The congregation at St. John Church in Worcester, where Rev. Coonan was pastor, reacted with shock and disbelief.
The parishioners have scheduled a candlelight vigil for the night of Sept. 5 as part of their effort to have Rev. Coonan restored to his post. Parishioners have mounted an aggressive campaign, much to the consternation of Rev. Coonan's alleged victims. The alleged victims say they are dumbfounded by the congregation's seeming refusal to believe the charges. Meanwhile, Rev. Coonan's supporters say there is no way their priest, whom they consider to be on the cutting edge of their faith, could have done the things he is accused of doing.
Mr. Bedard said he considered attending one of the parish meetings, but thought better of it. Although he now lives in Woodstock he still works in Oxford and says the community is divided. Some people believe the charges while others speak in reverential terms of Rev. Coonan's work as a camp counselor, drug counselor and high school teacher.
Mr. Bedard remembers wanting to join the drama club while a student at Oxford High School. But, he said, the fact that it was run by Joseph Coonan served as a deterrent. In his memory, and that of several other alleged victims, Mr. Coonan simply disappeared from the high school. Some never knew he became a priest until this year.
"I am very angry that this man is being portrayed as a saint when quite the opposite is true," Mr. Bedard said. "This guy has damaged adults that were boys at one time in their lives. I don't believe he should have a legacy of helping people."
Rev. Coonan, through his lawyer, Joseph Early Jr., vehemently denies the charges.
Mr. Bedard's allegations are similar to those of others who have come forward to say they remember Rev. Coonan as someone who wanted to be in their presence while they urinated or defecated.
Mr. Bedard said the alleged sexual abuse happened during a camping trip, where Rev. Coonan urged a number of boys to urinate on trees, explaining that the scent would confuse the dogs that belonged to drug dealers. He said Rev. Coonan confided that he was working in conjunction with the police to thwart drug dealers.
"He was very articulate. He could tell a story. He was interesting. He was like an Orson Welles type, that was his persona," Mr. Bedard said. "He talked a lot about a lot of different things, witchcraft, working for the police and helping them get rid of the drugs. He always encouraged all of the boys to express their sexuality by running naked and skinny dipping."
It was during one of these camping trips, Mr. Bedard said, that Rev. Coonan "checked on me and sexually molested me. I have been for a long, long time embarrassed about this. I've questioned my saneness about this."
Rev. Coonan's supporters remain nonplused by the charges against their pastor.
According to their "Good Stuff" updates on a Web site at www.FatherCoonan.com, green ribbons will be springing up everywhere in support of the priest. There is talk of stringing ribbon from Worcester to Oxford, where the accusers live. They are trying to get their "Support Fr. Coonan" posters out into the neighborhoods.
The Web site offers a flash introduction:
"A new day has dawned. ..." "A new kind of priest has been sent to God's family." "Father Joe Coonan is that new kind of priest." The New Age musical introduction ends with "Thanks be to God for 'Good Stuff.' " The phrase "good stuff" is commonly used by Rev. Coonan and has been adopted as an unofficial motto, of sorts, by his supporters.
The site has a discussion board where supporters are free to say they do not believe the accusers and to express their thoughts and feelings of what Rev. Coonan has meant to them.
The candlelight vigil and walk is scheduled for 7 p.m. Sept. 5, starting from St. John Church. Rev. Coonan's supporters will walk to Worcester City Hall and back to the church. A service inside the church will follow with poems, readings and some of Rev. Coonan's favorite music.
Irish blessing prayer cards embossed with the priest's name and printed at Boucher's Good Books are available and the group is passing out other prayer cards with a general "prayer for priests."
The group is building an e-mail base and a telephone system to make notifications of upcoming events or vigils.
Volunteers are buying up all available green ribbon in Worcester to make bows.
"We need to get bows out and around the neighborhoods where our parishioners live and work," according to the latest update. "Instead of a 'yellow brick road,' wouldn't it be great to create a 'green ribbon road' all the way from St. John's to Oxford!" the update said.
Car bumper stickers are being donated, but will not be available until October. More posters are being printed. Petitions to Bishop Reilly are available both at the church and through the Web site.
A "Father Coonan Trust Fund" is being set up. Money can be sent to the office of Mr. Early, 29 Chestnut St., Worcester. The organizers are looking for volunteers to help bring in support from youth, seniors and the Vietnamese and Spanish communities.
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