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Creating a Parish Comfort Zone

Priest's openness about church scandal strengthens his tie with his flock

July 01, 2002|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BROCKTON, Mass. — White- haired and bespectacled, the priest looked befuddled. Oh dear, he muttered, where is that little turkey?

That is Father Frank Cloherty's fond shorthand for the 200 or so children at St. Patrick Roman Catholic Church, "because it's easier than remembering all those names." The term seems fitting in this bustling parish southeast of Boston--a mix of immigrants and old-time residents in a tough industrial city. Like babes in the barnyard, the kids flock to their pastor.

These young parishioners and their parents are well aware that a terrible cloud has settled over many who wear the Roman collar. They have heard the term "pedophile priest" at home, in Sunday school and in the very sanctuary where Cloherty delivered an angry homily on the topic when the sexual abuse scandal first exploded in January. These 784 families--nearly 3,000 people--are as outraged as anyone about sexual misconduct in the priesthood, and about a church hierarchy that for decades covered it up.

Yet parish offerings are up since January. Attendance has not wavered. Social gatherings continue, bringing together families from diverse origins. No one flees or slams the door when the priest drops by the house unannounced, sometimes in jogging clothes.

Youth groups flourish with such abandon that at one recent outing, a dozen or more teenagers playfully pelted Cloherty with water balloons.

"People here really care about this parish," said Ellen Vellios, a member at St. Patrick for half her 64 years. "I think we are all trying to work together to understand this thing."

Though more than 100 priests from the Boston archdiocese have been named in the scandal, St. Patrick appears to have escaped direct experience with a pedophile priest. Still, the issue is close to home, because for several months Cloherty has been doing double duty: commuting to a nearby church whose priest was removed after a 38-year-old allegation against him surfaced.

Cloherty--known here as often as not as Father Frank, or sometimes just Frank--also has insisted that the topic be on the table at St. Patrick. He convened "listening sessions" days after the scandal broke. And right from the beginning, said pastoral associate Jeanne LaFond, "he expressed his feelings about what was going on."

The 66-year-old priest was so upset, she remembered, that "actually he started to break down a bit, so some people in the congregation went up to him and gave him a hug."

More than simple respect, that strong level of comfort between pastor and parishioners characterizes St. Patrick in particular--and on a broader level, many churches made up of new immigrants and a wide range of incomes. In such parishes, the crisis among members of the Catholic hierarchy may only have driven worshipers closer to their pastors.

They are relieved to be worshiping in a setting that has not been directly hit by the crisis. They continue to draw strength from their faith and from each other. They spare no wrath for leaders such as Cardinal Bernard Law, archbishop of Boston. But their faith transcends the hierarchy.

"What I have seen is that the more evident it has become that the bishops have really failed the church, the more people have warmed to their local clergy," said Paul F. Lakeland, a professor of religious studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut. "There's a closeness between people and pastor that might not have been there before the bishops started to fail them."

In a setting like St. Patrick, parishioners agree that Cloherty was courageous for standing up so early and airing his own indignation, almost in defiance of his superiors.

"But what are they going to do?" asked Lakeland, who studies Catholicism in America. "Move him to a poorer parish?"

Diplomatically, Cloherty describes his parishioners as "not wealthy." Many fall under the rubric of the working poor. But there are also professionals--lawyers and architects--for example. A year ago, the average weekly offering at St. Patrick was $3,000. Since January, that figure has grown to $3,600.

About 50% of congregants here are Hispanic, representing 17 Spanish-speaking countries. There are also new immigrants from Haiti and Cape Verde (off the west coast of Africa), and about 5% of worshipers are from Southeast Asia.

It would be tempting in this setting to talk about building bridges. But really, said lifelong parishioner Nick Allard, 17, "There's a lot of different people, and we do a lot to accommodate each other."

The small choir shuns robes and sings to the accompaniment of maracas, a tambourine and conga drums. Though there are seven Catholic churches in this city of 94,000, Cloherty jokes with unfortunate honesty that many choose this brick edifice two doors from a Salvation Army rehab center just to hear his miserable Spanish.

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