Priest Erred with Memo
Lawyer Says Client Thought Note OK

Telegram & Gazette
January 16, 2003

- While acknowledging that the Rev. Joseph A. Coonan sent a memo to the Telegram & Gazette advertising department last week, lawyer Joseph D. Early Jr., who represents the priest, said his client has not been involved in day-to-day activities at St. John Church since being placed on leave in August.

Mr. Early said Rev. Coonan did not realize that he could not so much as send out the memo while on administrative leave.

In a note addressed to the Telegram & Gazette "Religious Services Column" postmarked Jan. 7, Rev. Coonan wrote, "One more change in St. John's weekly, Saturday, religious services adv. Please omit: Sunday 10:30 a.m. Mass in Vietnamese which has been eliminated."

The letter, written on St. John's stationery, is signed: "Thanks, Fr. Coonan."

Upon learning of the letter, Roman Catholic Diocese of Worcester spokesman Raymond L. Delisle said Rev. Coonan should not have sent it. He also said priests on leave because of sexual abuse allegations are not to be on parish grounds or to act in any way as a priest.

Mr. Early said Rev. Coonan is allowed access to the church once a week to pick up his mail and use the library.

As for the letter, he said Rev. Coonan wanted to clarify a newspaper advertisement that listed a Vietnamese Mass that he discontinued more than a year ago while still a pastor in good standing.

"He thought that was in the realm of what he could do," Mr. Early said.

Rev. Coonan has denied the allegations of sexual abuse that were leveled against him -- charges that led Bishop Daniel P. Reilly to place him on leave in August. He remains a popular figure with his parishioners.

Through Mr. Early, Rev. Coonan has said the allegations stemmed 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.

But that statement angered his alleged victims, some of whom decided to go public.

Several alleged victims said about 15 people made statements to state police investigators who were investigating Rev. Coonan last year. The alleged victims described Rev. Coonan, during his time as a teacher and camp counselor in Oxford, as someone who wanted to be in their presence while they urinated or defecated.

One man accused Rev. Coonan of touching his genitals during a ride through Worcester that was billed as a search for prostitutes who were heroin addicts. He said Rev. Coonan also urged him and other students who were along for the ride to urinate in his car.

Mr. Early said Rev. Coonan is eager to seek reinstatement and wants to go before a church tribunal. Bishop Reilly has said he will be organizing tribunals for any of the seven priests he has placed on leave. Alleged victims will be allowed to give testimony.

The tribunals are part of the new revised policy on handling sexual abuse allegations adopted in November by the American Catholic bishops.


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