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In Maine, Revelations of Sexual Abuse, Other Issues Pose Challenges

By COLIN HICKEY Staff Writer, Sunday, February 24, 2002

Copyright © 2002 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

In the Catholic church, priests are known as fathers. That title says much about the relationship that the church has always attempted to form with its parishioners, as well as the powerful responsibility that priests carry.

A priest heads his religious family. Like all fathers, his duty is to guide, to teach, to love, to protect. And that is why the recent revelations of pedophilia among the priesthood has shaken the very foundation of the church: the family trust has been violated.

From victims, priests, lay people, scholars and leading church authorities, there is agreement that this is a time of great soul searching within the church, a time to question and a time in which forgiveness and healing have never been more important.

But the Roman Catholic Church has faced challenges before. Certainly Martin Luther shook the Catholic world with his ideas 500 years ago. Catholicism, however, survived Luther's 95 Theses and over its history has proven among the most resilient of religions.

Still when a father betrays his children, when he abuses rather than protects, the pain is deep and lasting.

"I would say it is a very strong challenge to the church that could become a crisis," the Rev. Philip A. Tracy of Waterville's Parish of the Holy Spirit said. "Certainly, it is a very painful happening."

And the challenge in some ways may be greater today than in the past. Today, in the 21st century, the Catholic church already grapples with a shortage of priests, and of the priests that remain, many are expected to retire over the next decade.

Tracy acknowledged that nine priests once served Waterville's three Catholic churches, while now there are only two: Tracy and the Rev. Ralph Boisvert, a 62-year-old widower ordained just three years ago.

The projections, too, are alarming. Tracy said over the next two or three years, the Catholic Diocese of Portland —the governing body for Catholic churches in Maine — expects 23 of its 104 active priests to retire.

Although 10 new priests are supposed to join the diocese during that same period, the net result is still a reduction of 13 priests.

And yet care must be taken when evaluating the numbers. The state of the church, the state of this Catholic family, is far more complicated than priest-to-parishioner ratios.

As Tracy and Boisvert are quick to note, lay people have taken over many of the administrative duties that priests once had to perform. And this change, they say, has been good for the church, for it has allowed priests to focus on far more important tasks, the matters of faith that they were called to embrace.

What needs to happen in light of the current challenges, Catholic leaders and observers seem to agree, is the church must learn from its mistakes and embrace a more open and responsive approach to the needs of its members.

"I think that right now there is a lot of pain, both on the part of victims and for those in the pew that is not negligible," said Msgr. Marc Caron, chancellor of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland. "I don't see that disappearing overnight, but I do believe that together we can reach out to victims to help them heal."


Massachusetts is where the issue of sexual abuse among the Catholic clergy erupted. Cardinal Bernard Law of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston recently provided prosecutors the names of more than 80 active and former priests accused of sexual abuse.

Catholic bishops in New Hampshire and Maine have subsequently done the same.

And yet Maine Bishop Joseph Gerry has been less open than other Catholic leaders in New England. Law ultimately made the names of priests accused available to the general public.

Gerry, in contrast, handed the names of Maine priests accused to the district attorney's office in Cumberland County and left it to that office to determine which names should be made public.

Cyndi Desrosiers, an Augusta resident who won a $500,000 settlement from a Massachusetts priest who allegedly sexually abused her more than 30 years ago, criticizes this stance by the Portland Diocese.

Desrosiers said she believes Maine has as many as seven active priests who at some point sexually abused children. So far Gerry has provided names of two priests so accused — the Rev. Michael Doucette of St. Agatha and the Rev. John Audibert of Madawaska.

She argues that the church continues to make token moves to deal with the issue.

"I have a saying on my refrigerator: 'Sometimes the truth hurts, but in the long run, lies hurt more,' " said the 37-year-old mother of two. "That is something I live by."

Desrosiers wants the Portland Diocese to adhere to the same policy.

Caron, however, argues that the diocese does so.

What needs to be understood, he said, is that Maine's Catholic district was more open about issues of sexual abuse among its clergy long before the Boston Archdiocese.

Boston was silent on the subject until just recently, Caron said.

"Boston never reported any allegations to public authorities until now," he said. "Since 1997, the Portland Diocese has been a mandated reporter (by order of state law) and has complied with that law consistency."

Caron said four years before the 1997 law, the Portland Diocese adopted a policy to investigate reports of sexual abuse by priests as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.

The monsignor declines to view the current furor as a crisis.

"It is a new moment," he said. "I would rather see it as an opportunity for us to really act in the interest of protecting children very clearly and consistently."


Colby College history professor Larissa Juliet Taylor is a scholar on Catholicism as well as a recent convert to the religion.

Taylor, 49, also is an active parishioner in Waterville's Parish of the Holy Spirit. She attends Mass daily and is a member of the pastoral council.

And while she is deeply disturbed by the revelations of sexual abuse among priests, she sees the problem as a reflection of a societal sickness.

As such, she sees the problem as a challenge rather than a crisis, and she is confident that she is not alone among parishioners in this belief.

"I would doubt that almost anybody would feel that (this is a crisis for the church), at least here," she said.

Taylor said Catholicism's tradition, ritual and creed are what drew her to the church. She started her examination as a scholar more than a decade ago and only two years found herself compelled to join the church.

She became a member, she said, because she found a community that welcomed her and gave her comfort.

Although she does not agree with all the church's tenets, she finds in Catholicism far more that she likes than dislikes.

Debra Campbell, a Colby College associate professor of religion, argues that when evaluating Catholicism a distinction should be made between the church the institution and the church the people.

Campbell said if a crisis exists, it exists with the institution. At the grassroots level, the level of the individual parish, Campbell said she sees a Catholicism that remains alive and vibrant.

"I don't think the parish is in any danger of losing meaning and dying," she said.

Taylor, too, sees the strength of the church as being the local church community, the family that cares.

"I know a lot of people within the parish who came back recently, and they are very active," she said. "If the community makes you feel welcome, I think that is a way people will come back."


The tremendous increase in lay participation within the church has helped Catholicism survive its dramatic reduction in priests.

Other such changes may be necessary for the church to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Taylor, the Catholic scholar and church member, is confident the church will adapt to those challenges.

She points to the changes of Vatican Council II, when the church, among other changes, allowed priests to say Mass in English — previously Latin was mandatory — and to face the congregation during the ceremony.

Vatican II, she argues, served as proof that the church is not inflexible, that it is willing to change.

Taylor would like to see the church permit women to become priests — certainly one way to help overcome the priest shortage.

"Personally, I believe women should be ordained, and I think it is entirely possible," she said.

Rev. Tracy, however, is more cautious on this subject.

"As of right now, according to church teaching, it is not even a topic for discussion," he said. "I would see a married clergy many more years before I would see a woman priest."

At the same time, Tracy argues that in some ways the church is stronger today than in the days when priests were more plentiful. The greater involvement of laity, he said, has in many respects created a closer family.

"It is a wonderful community of faith, and each week there are more people who understand it is their church," he said.

Rev. Boisvert, too, is optimistic about the church's future. And both he and Tracy stress that ultimately, and fundamentally, Catholicism survives and will continue to survive on the power of faith.

"It is not our church," Boisvert said. "It is the expression of God. Humans can make mistakes, but it is the Holy Spirit that flows through and opens the door."

Colin Hickey —

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests