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Faith Frustrated

Am I damning an innocent man, the best priest I've ever known?


I hate that I'm here in this perfectly lovely church that feels all wrong for me. The fact is, I have a great church in my life. It's a bright place with lots of chatter down the pews. It brims with people I like on Sundays and has a choir that can make your eyes tear up because they sound so pretty. The homilies almost always make me think long and hard. It's the only church I've known in my life where I felt — with all my doubts and arguments with the Vatican — connected to other people and to God.

But my church is St. Michael's and my pastor is Father John Leonard. And for me it no longer feels the same.

"We have no place to be heard," complains my friend Michelle Rosman, who has been in my religious-education group for three years. She says she shakes as she reads graphic accounts of the accusations against Father John. "It seems like there should be some avenue to express concern and ask questions," she says. "I feel kept in the dark by this church."

Others sitting around the table have no answer.

This little group has gathered for three years to discuss the Bible and the church. We're five families, each at different points on the "devout spectrum," although all of us are active in the church.

Some of us go to women's prisons to offer Mass. Some are Eucharistic ministers or do readings from the Bible during Mass. Several graduated from Catholic schools. We're mental-health professionals, attorneys, moms, writers, stockbrokers and pharmacists. We volunteer, coach teams, go to church picnics. Hardly what you'd call an angry fringe element.

But we are struggling with our next move. I argue that we should press the escape hatch and run to another church. Others want to write letters to all of our fellow parishioners. Continue to appeal to the bishop. In frustration and giddy desperation we suggest writing a mean message on the tips of our tongues so it can be read when we accept communion. Or maybe become Buddhists.

In March, diocesan spokesman the Rev. Pasquale Apuzzo told Style that the diocese had no sex-abuse problems. But a few weeks ago two priests were defrocked. A six-year-old accusation of rape against Father John is being turned over to the Goochland authorities for investigation. And reports of how Bishop Sullivan overruled his advisory panel and reinstated Father John to our parish have brought the news painfully close.

Father John flatly denies the allegations. But even Bishop Sullivan acknowledges that his behavior was at least improper. Apparently Father John is in treatment of some sort, though we're not told what for. In the meantime, two lay members of the three-person panel the bishop asked to investigate Leonard's case have quit in protest over Sullivan's decision to reinstate him. The bishop has made it clear that his decision was final.

All that's left for us is uncertainty and suspicion — the worst outcome of all.

The members of our little group of St. Michael's members are stumped but we all agree that this experience puts us face to face with the church as an institution — a scary place. To one degree or another everyone at this table is a "cafeteria Catholic," feeling that we have to pick and choose carefully from church doctrine. It's a necessity that none of us are too eager to admit.

"I just can't let my head go too high into the politics of the Catholic Church, or it wants to explode," explains my friend Todd Jackson. Todd, possibly the guy with the worst religious timing ever, became a Catholic at St. Michael's a few weeks before the mess started. For him and his wife, Kathy, it's St. Michael's or nothing.

We're not alone in questioning what's going on; many families are quietly leaving. But plenty of bright, accomplished people are delighted to have Father John back. And they are not sheep.

They feel Father John is incapable of doing what he's accused of, having known him personally and professionally for years. They note the incredible body of good works he's done over a 30-year career. He's a gifted homilist, a comic ham, a guy who is scholarly and yet can talk about the Notre Dame score. But mostly, he makes people feel completely at ease in the church — with all their own imperfections and with the imperfections of the church. It seems pointless and unfair to see him ruined now after he has helped so many people, these people say. And there are murmured rumors of a parish vendetta that could rival the vast-right-wing-conspiracy theory of the Clinton years.

These arguments unsettle me. What if they are right? Am I damning an innocent man who is the best priest I've ever known?

Several times during our meeting, my eyes fill unexpectedly with tears. Like Todd, I want to explode too — especially when we try to wrap our head around the gravity of the accusations and Father John's current behavior. For example, on the Sunday following the published description of the accusations (back rubs, encouraging kids to compare penis sizes) he smiled and quipped, "Aren't you guys sick of seeing my face in the newspaper? I'm in there more than Joe Morrissey."

For many of us at the table, that comment felt like a turning point. There was no humility, no apology for the embarrassment these stories have caused our church — to say nothing of the impact they would have had on the boys involved.

Those thoughts haunt me when I picture Father John in better times, using blessed oil to mold funny curls in babies' hair during their baptism. Giving my son a high five at the end of Mass. Asking me how my family is doing. Holding my hand while I bawled like a baby during my first confession in more than 20 years.

All of this has left our parish divided and hurt. Carefully, we feel each other out in the aisle at Ukrop's. "So what do you think?" we ask, trying to sound light and calm. We're talking openly only with our dearest friends. Each side is frustrated and dismayed with the others' view. A deep fissure is forming.

The bishop may have hoped his decision would be final. And considering that Boston's Cardinal Law is still in place, I think it's a safe bet that no one but the police will force him to rethink his position.

But for me and for the others like me struggling to make sense of this uncertainty and horror, the matter isn't final. The only thing that's sure is that this mess will not go away. S

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