Parishioners Back Accused Pastor

By Pat Healy
Boston Globe
May 23, 2004

Parishioners of St. Benedict Church in Somerville are rallying to defend the Rev. John E. McLaughlin, who last week agreed to accept a voluntary administrative leave pending the investigation of an allegation of sexual misconduct with a minor in the 1980s.

The alleged incident only recently came to the attention of the Archdiocese of Boston, and the identity of McLaughlin's accuser is being kept confidential, according to church officials.

St. Benedict's was packed with parishioners last Monday night as the congregation began sorting out a mix of emotions on the matter.

"There were probably over 1,000 people there," said Julia Pollard, who has been attending Mass at the church for more than 30 years. Faith is keeping the parish together right now, she said, but most are praying for the pastor's quick return.

"I know the authorities have a job to do, and as parishioners we need to continue with what Father McLaughlin left us with, which is to be good to each other, be spiritual, pray, and go to church," she said. "But we want him to come back to us."

The Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, spokesman for the Boston Archdiocese, said when a priest is removed or takes a voluntary leave of absence, "people who knew the man are always distressed about it."

"We've committed ourselves to taking each and every allegation seriously," said Coyne. "It's often difficult on the parish, but it's what we have to do because of what we didn't do in the past."

Even if he is acquitted, McLaughlin's return won't necessarily be easy. The Rev. Ron Bourgault, pastor at St. Zepherin Church in Wayland, returned to his parish when a 30-year-old claim of sexual abuse of a minor proved groundless after an eight-month investigation. He said it took at least eight more months for him to regain his confidence.

"It's quite a shock to your system," he said. "When you come back it takes a while because you need time for healing."

Lifelong Benedict's parishioner Lorraine Driver vowed her loyalty to McLaughlin and stressed that these allegations don't change the way she feels about him.

"I would never believe it," she said. "He's the closest person we know to a saint, and I don't say that lightly."

Many parishioners echoed Driver's statement. "I still believe him," said Lucia Rigo, who has a 3-year old at the St. Benedict's Little Flower Catholic Elementary School.

Julio Faria, whose three children also attend Little Flower, said he doesn't believe the allegations, either.

"I really don't think he would do this. He's always trying to help as much as he can," he said of McLaughlin. "Always when we need something from him, he is there to give us a good thought."

For some, confusion has soured to anger.

"This is an innocent man whose reputation is just being ruined," said parishioner Carmelina Buonoapane.

Lifelong parishioner Julia Bonavita has a slightly harsher theory.

"I really feel that this is a money-making business that people are getting into," she said of the accuser. "Pedophilia is not a once-in-a-lifetime thing, it's a lifetime disease. When you have access to that many children, there would be many more who would have come forward by now if he was a pedophile."

This is not the first time that McLaughlin has been cited for sexual abuse. In 2002, he was named in a lawsuit that alleged he sexually abused two men on two occasions.

No action was taken to remove McLaughlin from his position at that time, Coyne told the Globe, because the archdiocese handles allegations of sexual abuse of adults differently from those involving minors.

That lawsuit was addressed in the $85 million settlement between the archdiocese and some 500 alleged victims of abuse.

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