Bishop Must Resolve Coonan Case

By Christine McKenna
Telegram & Gazette
May 14, 2003

As Bishop Reilly celebrates his 75th birthday and prepares to retire, he rightfully can feel proud of many accomplishments. However, he also will be remembered for his role in the church sex abuse scandal.

Sadly, Bishop Reilly's original dealings with accused priests were reflective of church culture. He was part of a system that preferred to hide these crimes and hope for the best rather than hold priests accountable for their behavior. Bishop Reilly's creation of a new diocesan Office for Healing and Prevention in June 2002 was a hopeful moment.

Also a positive move was his decision to place seven priests on administrative leave after they were accused of sexual misconduct. In March, District Attorney John J. Conte determined that none of them will face criminal charges because the statute of limitations has expired. That same month, Bishop Reilly announced that six of these seven priests will be charged under canon law in church tribunals.

What about the seventh priest? The Rev. Joseph Coonan was a popular priest who discovered his vocation in mid-life. On Sunday evenings he packed St. John's Church on Temple Street in Worcester with his down-to-earth approach, integrating poetry and popular music into sermons and reminding listeners that God's love and forgiveness are immeasurable. Parishioners were stunned in August to find that he had been placed on administrative leave.

When his alleged victims went public with their stories, faith in Rev. Coonan diminished. A number of men have accused him of improprieties in the 1970s, before he entered the priesthood.

A small minority of the parish remains unfailing in its support of Rev. Coonan and continues to call for his return. Their signs and ribbons have driven away many parishioners who refuse to turn a blind eye to the preponderance of evidence against their pastor and the church.

Nearly a year after the pastor was put on administrative leave, the parish is in limbo. The diocese still allows Rev. Coonan to visit the parish weekly. The charismatic priest never developed a parish council, so no structure exists for representative decision-making. The diocese has not named an interim parish administrator, so short of a mutiny there is no means of establishing or legitimizing a new council. In the meantime, anonymous newsletters filled with pro-Coonan prayers and reflections are available each week at the church.

In November, Bishop Reilly explained that he "cannot permanently remove a priest unless the priest has a chance for due process through a church or civil trial."

Rev. Coonan's situation is a thorny one. A civil trial is not available because the statute of limitations has run out. A church trial is not an option because the alleged offenses occurred years before he became a priest.

Bishop Reilly has a responsibility to resolve this case in his last days as administrator of the Worcester Diocese. He and the church are making progress in their recognition of sexual abuse by priests and in their efforts to take such priests out of circulation. Still, they can do better at sustaining and nourishing the parishes affected by these departures.

Bishop Reilly's announcement of church tribunals for six accused priests is a step in the right direction. He has yet to make the difficult decision that the pastor of St. John's can never return to active ministry as a priest.

As a teacher and counselor, Rev. Coonan allegedly abused his authority and acted inappropriately with young people who trusted him. Before Bishop Reilly departs our diocese, he must announce his course of action for this priest and the parish he left behind.

Christine McKenna of Leicester is a member of St. John's Parish.


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