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SNAP Calls Fr. Coonan Support "Misguided"

Saturday, August 31, 2002

By Kathleen A. Shaw, Telegram & Gazette Staff

WORCESTER-- David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said yesterday that Bishop Daniel P. Reilly of the Diocese of Worcester must exercise leadership and put a stop to the movement that supports the Rev. Joseph A. Coonan.

Raymond L. Delisle, diocesan spokesman, said the bishop cannot order the people to do anything. He said the people at St. John's parish need time to adjust to what has happened, and Bishop Reilly is working behind the scenes with the group.

The bishop has met with the leadership of the Coonan support movement and is trying to move them in a positive direction, Mr. Delisle said. He acknowledged that people at St. John Church have had a traumatic time and need time to adjust to what has happened.

Patricia Engdahl, who heads the bishop's prevention and healing office, also has been out meeting with people at St. John parish and is open to more meetings, Mr. Delisle said.

He said he has been told that the supporters of Rev. Coonan will not be walking to City Hall Thursday, but will remain in the church and hold a prayer vigil.

“That's a small step,” Mr. Clohessy said.

Although the support group previously announced the vigil, the Web site at www.FatherCoonan.com said yesterday the vigil would be at the church, 44 Temple St.
A group of people who support the alleged victims plan their own vigil at the same time, but moving in the opposite direction.

Mr. Clohessy said the supporters of Rev. Coonan, through their activities, are intimidating and frightening alleged abuse victims and making it harder for victims of abuse by anyone -- whether it be clergy, a coach or teacher -- to come forward and tell their stories.

The national director said he believes the diocese is violating the new national sexual abuse policy adopted in June by the American bishops, “at least in spirit,” by allowing the supporters of Rev. Coonan to continue their activities. These activities include taunts that Coonan supporters would string green ribbons from Worcester to Oxford, putting up posters and some of the comments made on their Web site.

More than 15 men have made reports to state police alleging that Rev. Coonan abused them in various ways when he was a teacher at Oxford High School. These allegations are that, at various times, he asked teenage boys to urinate, defecate and masturbate in front of him.

Bishop Reilly removed Rev. Coonan from his pastorship Aug. 1 after the allegations were relayed to him by Worcester District Attorney John J. Conte.

Mr. Clohessy, who is based in St. Louis, spoke from the viewpoint of a victim of priest abuse at the bishops' meeting in Dallas in June, when the bishops adopted the new national policy regarding sexual abuse by clergy and other church workers.

The national director yesterday also asked Bishop Wilton Gregory, who heads the American bishops, to do what he can to halt accused priests from filing lawsuits against their accusers. No suits have been filed by priests in the Worcester diocese.

Bishop Reilly since February has removed seven priests from their parishes after receiving what the diocese called “credible allegations” that they abused minors. They are Rev. Coonan, Rev. Raymond P. Messier of Athol and Petersham, Rev. John Bagley of Grafton, Rev. Gerard Walsh of Oxford, Rev. Lee F. Bartlett of Worcester, Rev. Chester Devlin of Northboro and Rev. Peter J. Inzerillo of Leominster.

In a letter yesterday to Bishop Gregory, Mr. Clohessy lauded the work that has been done nationally by the Catholic Church to help victims in their healing.

“Sadly, however, they are already being severely undermined by a handful of bishops who allowed their priests to sue alleged sexual abuse victims. Today we call upon you, as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to stop and speak out against these brutal legal attacks,” Mr. Clohessy wrote.

He said he recognizes that false or mistaken accusations can be made and that priests have a right to defend themselves.

“Clerics suing their former parishioners is inexcusable. Simply put, priests can defend themselves without attacking their accusers,” he said.

He called these lawsuits “un-Christian and vengeful.”

“These hostile acts will scare victims into continued depression, shame, self-blame and silence, thus putting children needlessly at risk,” he said. “We can only hope, however, that vicious, un-Christian legal tactics like this will backfire. In our experience, they sometimes do. Instead of being frightened into submission by such hateful antics, abuse victims sometimes feel even more driven to come forward, expose their abusers and protect children. Again, for the sake and safety of children, we in SNAP hope this proves to be the case.”


Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests
www.snapnetwork.org

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