The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, May 31, 2002


St. Irene Church weathers priest abuse scandal

The current scandal regarding the sexual abuse of minors by Roman Catholic priests has presented a challenge for the priests, the parish council, and the general membership at St. Irene. Although the scandal has not touched the local church directly, parishioners are concerned and angry over the Boston archdiocese's management of the issue.

I spoke recently with Fr. Donahoe, pastor at St. Irene, and with several committed parishioners. Over the past three months, St. Irene has held three "listening sessions" to let parishioners express feelings, get questions answered, and provide input to Fr. Donahoe and the parish council, the lay organization offering volunteer services and advice on parish management. About 100 parishioners have attended one or more of these sessions.

Carlisle's St. Irene Catholic Church on East Street (Photo by Midge Eliassen)
According to Fr. Donahoe, "a lot of anger and emotion" has surfaced, including calls for the Cardinal's resignation, concern for victims, and suggestions to consider alternatives to a celibate all-male priesthood. Parishioners have questioned how to talk to children about the issue of priest sexual abuse, as well as how to deal with their own crises of faith. Others felt the archdiocese needs to change its way of doing business: "the secrecy and resistance to involving dedicated lay people is wrong," says parish council member Kate Bauer Burke.

Fr. Donahoe mulls over impact

"Maybe retirement wouldn't be so bad," says Fr. Donahoe, as he absorbs the latest priest sex abuse allegations. In truth, Fr. Donahoe's bright eyes and sprightly carriage belie the fact he has reached the "mandatory" retirement age of 75 ­ with no immediate plans for retirement.

But a tired look crosses his face when he looks back on the past months. The scandal, he says, has been "all-consuming and very difficult." When he gets together with other priests, "It's always the topic of conversation. We're aghast at the whole thing." Fr. Donahoe expresses disbelief that a priest could enter into such a relationship. "It's a terrible abuse of power," he says, and he grapples with comprehending the actions of bishops who allowed it to continue. "I can understand that in the 70s and 80s there was a feeling this could be treated, but by the 90s the diocese had a policy and they still didn't deal with this in the correct way."

When asked why they didn't, Fr. Donahoe pauses and struggles for an answer. "It was a different time, many families probably wanted it kept quiet." Noting that talking about priest sex abuse on the 6 o'clock news would have been shocking, he adds, "We forget that things used to horrify us then that don't horrify us now."

He notes St. Irene is fortunate in that no perpetrator has been associated with the parish, and no victims have stepped forward. The diocese has set up a special office for dispensing counselling and services to victims, and a plan for compensation is under consideration. But Fr. Donahue fears the reputations of good priests are sometimes being tarnished in pursuit of quick settlements. He points to an accused priest he knows who wished to fight a charge, but the church settled immediately, robbing him of any opportunity to set the record straight. The priest was known for putting his arm around people he was talking to, says Fr. Donahoe, who adds, "I guess I should be glad I've never been a hugger." Though he smiles when he says it, he's clearly unhappy that all priests now may be tarred with the broad brush of the scandal.

When asked about the role of the media, Fr. Donahoe voices relief that for the first time in months, the Boston Globe has no front-page article on the issue. "The media overplays many things," he adds, "but even the Cardinal has said, 'don't blame the media.'" Conversations with St. Irene visiting priest Fr. Winiko from Malawi, where government corruption has contributed to famine, confirm Fr. Donahoe's gratitude for a free press. "The media keeps on top of things. It may be painful, and it may go on too long, but it uncovers things that need correction, and this (the priest abuse scandal) is one."

Ensuring safety at St. Irene
Father Donahue speaks on Memorial Day, 2001.

Another painful aspect of the scandal is the potential effect on children. Parents wonder what to say to children hearing the news and asking (or not asking) about the scandal.

Fr. Donahoe has counselled them to say, "In our parish you will be safe." He points out that virtually every activity in the church is done with a team approach, "We don't have one-on-ones." Currently the parish council is working on a set of policies, to be released this summer, ensuring that opportunities for abuse are minimized and allegations, if any arise, are properly dealt with. Although most policies will only codify what's already in place, one change has been implemented ­ leaving the door open during child reconciliations (confessions). "This seemed a reasonable compromise between privacy and openness," says Fr. Donahoe.

Fr. Donahoe also voices concern that church youth activities continue to grow. "Over the years I've supervised many trips. I think kids learn pride, proper behavior, and a sense of responsibility by being part of a church group." He notes that on a properly chaperoned outing an adult shouldn't be alone with kids, as much to keep control as for any other reason. He hopes church activities can continue without fear or suspicion, and notes a parishioner who heads a Boy Scout council has provided useful advice on procedures and policies to ensure this.

Although discussion with children in the younger CCD (religious education) classes was left to parents, Stephanie McKenna, who teaches the tenth-grade confirmation class, said a session on the priest abuse crisis was held with her students. While it generated some questions, most students "didn't seem to know a lot about it." She speculated the issue seemed distant and unreal to them. "They feel safe at St. Irene. Fr. Donahoe is almost a grandfatherly figure. And he doesn't over-step. He doesn't try to be the kids' best friend."

Lay involvement in diocese needed

According to Burke, Fr. Donahoe has encouraged openness and participation, "St. Irene is ahead of the curve in how to run a parish and involve people. ... To a large part this is due to the style of Father Donahoe, who's so inviting and inclusive." She contrasts this to the way the archdiocese conducts business. After she represented St. Irene at a group meeting with Cardinal Bernard Law and parish council representatives, Burke says she felt that the Cardinal, "in spite of the input he heard, still doesn't really understand the need for openness and involving more people. He and his advisors are from a different time, a different era. . . If only they would come and see how well St. Irene runs with a priest who invites parishioners in and uses their talents to augment the vitality of the parish."

"I hear from parishioners, 'This is not an immigrant church anymore,'" says Fr. Donahoe. "We have many educated and accomplished people.... We need good lay involvement."

According to Fr. Donahoe, the archdiocese has lagged behind many of its own parishes in moving toward a more participatory mode of management. "When I began as a priest in 1952, every parish activity was managed by the priest," he says. "For my first 25 years there was no such thing as a parish council," a situation he calls "unimaginable" today. "Our parish is prospering because of the talented lay people involved," continues Fr. Donahoe. "While the parish council is technically advisory, it has a real voice in the running of the parish, and this is a very healthy thing."

Growth the result of participation

Fr. Donahoe points with pride to the growth of St. Irene, which now has 850 member families, more than double the number when the church was built five years ago. He notes it was lay people who raised the money and oversaw the building of the new church on East Street. "Today the church is healthy financially thanks to the parish finance council ­ we're paying off our mortgage, expanding our music program and our youth ministry, and it's all managed by lay people." He adds that lay assistance in obtaining a visa, providing a car donation, and offering financial help have made possible St. Irene's hosting of Fr. Winiko from Malawi, who, after previous visits, will be arriving to assist Fr. Donahoe in the near future.

Call for open finances

Another source of parish concern is the unwillingness of the archdiocese to reveal finances. "Our parish financial statements are open," says Fr. Donahoe. But regarding diocesan finances, "It's a problem they haven't opened up about. The sense [of parishioners] is they've been reluctant and slow to divulge information." Ed Sonn of the parish finance council agrees. "Fr. Donahoe has opened St. Irene's finances. There aren't many parishes where that's the case," says Sonn. "I'd like to see that openness on the archdiocese level."

Sonn suspects the closed books may hide problems with the management of diocesan funds, "There seems to be little oversight, guidance, or inspection" of parishes. He also notes that the Cardinal's Appeal typically raises about $17 million, which he feels is "not much to run the diocese on." He points to the St. Irene Building Fund, established to finance the new church, as an example of effective fundraising. In two rounds of letters and phone calls, St. Irene raised $1.5 million. The St. Irene appeal was successful because it involved parishioners, such as Sonn, who had business fundraising experience. Had the church followed the advice of the diocese regarding fundraising, they would have abandoned the idea of a new church as not achievable.

Celibate priesthood

Many parishioners have expressed interest in exploring alternatives for recruiting priests, including a lifting of celibacy requirements and the ordination of women. It disturbs Fr. Donahoe that "The bishops won't even talk about it. To me, it's something that they should be talking about." He adds that since ordination is already allowed for married Eastern Rite priests entering the church, a first step might be to extend ordination to other already-married men.

When asked if parishioners would support having a married priest, Fr. Donahoe responds, "I've seen a change in people's attitudes. They're more accepting, where 20 years ago they would have bristled at the idea." Still, he adds, "This would be a major change in tradition, and many Catholics are very traditional." He notes there's a "broad spectrum, even within St. Irene" and preparation would be necessary.

"We must start now considering alternatives to celibacy and an all-male priesthood," says Sonn, who believes the shortage of priests was one reason abusers were retained and re-assigned. The archdiocese suffers a "net loss of 20 priests per year. That will mean 300 fewer priests in 15 years." He echoes Fr. Donahoe's frustration with the bishops. Sonn wrote to Bishop Murphy before the U.S. Conference of Bishops asking him to raise the issue of exploring alternatives for the priesthood, and the response was, "he didn't think there was a problem." Sonn says, "There are many issues to resolve, including how a priest with a family would be compensated, and how living arrangements would change. This will take time. I'm hoping we'll get through this [the scandal], but I don't think the church will be the same .... In my experience, the right way of doing things usually wins in the end, but people have to jumble through it first to arrive there."

Impact on faith

"I know this [scandal] affects the faith of some people, and I feel saddened by that," says Fr. Donahoe. "Many parishioners feel a sense of betrayal. People put priests on pedestals, and I've always wanted to say, 'Don't do that. It's too high for us.'" But he points to St. Irene's "good parish life," and notes there has been no noticeable fall off in church attendance, and people are still coming in for baptisms and marriages. "Like 'politics is local,' the church is the parish. In most people's minds, if the parish is doing well, the church is doing well," he adds. He reiterates the value of the listening sessions, and praises sermons delivered on the abuse issue by priest-in-residence Fr. Langley. "They have helped parishioners deal with this together, unlike many parishes where the issue has been ignored."

Sonn confirms that dissatisfaction with the conduct of certain priests and the church hierarchy has not translated into a fall off in donations at the local level. "If we're off a bit [in weekly collections], it's not by much," he says, and may have more to do with a slowing economy. Receipts are currently short of the budget "but that happened last year as well." He notes the additions of a visiting priest and a full-time youth minister, as well as the need to paint the church this year, have driven up budget requirements. Regarding the Cardinal's Appeal, currently taking place throughout the archdiocese, there is reason for concern, although "it's still too early to tell."

Burke has spoken to many who are feeling angry at the hierarchy. "I haven't talked to anyone at St. Irene thinking of leaving. I think there's a feeling about St. Irene as a community that cares about each other. We're family here and this is a problem and we'll deal with it."

Confirmation students, who might be expected to reconsider a commitment to the church, have all proceeded with their confirmations as planned, according to CDC tenth-grade teacher McKenna. "When they had to write 'faith statements,' many expressed a desire to stand by the church during the hard times it's facing," she adds.

Resolution needed

Sonn believes the Cardinal must step down. "This happened on his watch," he says. After some soul-searching, Burke has come to the same conclusion, "I'm very disappointed in how he mismanaged individual cases and how he's dealing with the crisis now." Many, if not most parishioners I spoke with informally, seem to agree.

Fr. Donahoe expects some changes in church operations. "I hope they've learned it's better to deal with things openly." He says upcoming trials will provide resolution "so we can get back to normal life." He adds, "I feel confident there will be changes made to make sure this doesn't happen again." He points to organizations dedicated to increasing oversight into the workings of the diocese which have sprung up around the Boston area in response to the scandal. "This is the way the church is going and should be going," he says, adding, "It could, in the end, be good for the church if reform comes out of this."

Burke also hopes the scandal will become an impetus for needed change. "Groups are being put together of dedicated Catholics looking to keep the issue in the forefront that change needs to happen. It won't happen overnight, but we're looking at one or two mechanisms for keeping alive the momentum."

Whatever happens in the archdiocese, St. Irene parish will endure. A strong parish membership, an activist parish council, and a priest who listens to parishioners and involves them in decision-making, have forged a community that will not easily be divided. A commitment to the children of the parish, to their religious education and safety, is paramount. Reflecting on the recent first-grade First Reconciliation, Fr. Donahue smiles, "They are wonderful kids in this parish, wholesome and good." He notes with pride the positive comments of Bishop Allue of Lowell, who conducted confirmation at St. Irene, and noted the caliber of the children and parents. "It's so true," says Fr. Donahoe. "We're very blessed."

How to talk to your kids about the priest abuse scandal

Child psychologist George Scarlett, who lives in Carlisle, says Father Donahue's suggestions to parents are "just what's needed." "This issue about talking with children about priests and sexual abuse is similar to one I get asked to talk about with respect to 9/11, Osama Bin Laden, terrorism, etc. For some reason, a good many parents feel an obligation to fill children in on the details of the darker aspects of living in the world ­ details about terrorists, murderers, and sex abusers. This is an adult-centric view and one that is not sufficiently developmental. Children don't need to know about every aspect of the real world and all its many problems. What they need to know is they are safe, and it is our job to keep them safe, not the children's' job. They need to know we will be there to tuck them in at night, support their interests, and challenge them in ways they need to be challenged. Becoming knowledgeable about terrorism, murder, sexual abuse, and the other items on a long list of scary and confusing topics is not something we need to burden children with. And if they happen across these items and feel confused or frightened, it's enough to make a cursory statement that bad things happen sometimes but they won't happen while we are around. In short, children deserve to be protected and allowed to hold onto an unrealistic view that it is a far safer world than it really is. They have adolescence and adulthood to learn otherwise."

2002 The Carlisle Mosquito