Priest Says He's Innocent, Fights for His Job: A Boston Case Raises Questions about Due Process. (Nation)

By Patterson, Margot | National Catholic Reporter, March 8, 2002 | Go to article overview

Priest Says He's Innocent, Fights for His Job: A Boston Case Raises Questions about Due Process. (Nation)


Patterson, Margot, National Catholic Reporter


Fr. George Spagnolia won't let himself be sidelined without a fight and is vigorously defending his reputation and ministry. Suspended from the Boston archdiocese Feb. 21 after being accused of sexually abusing a minor 31 years ago, Spagnolia denies the charge recently lodged against him and is refusing to step down as pastor of St. Patrick's Church in Lowell, Mass.

"Evil" is the word Spagnolia uses to describe Cardinal Bernard Law's new policy of turning over the names of priests accused of sexually abusing minors to the media and to prosecutors without a thorough prior investigation.

"The policy does not allow for due process as it's being implemented," Spagnolia told NCR. "It goes totally against the Code of Canon Law, which protects priests and pastors, and which has due process formulas. Those have been totally abrogated by the cardinal archbishop of Boston to the detriment of the church of Boston and the church universal as well as to the priesthood."

One of 10 priests that the archdiocese of Boston removed from the pulpit in February because of allegations of sexual abuse, Spagnolia is the only priest to proclaim his innocence. He was removed from his pastoral duties five days after a man told church authorities he had been assaulted at age 14 when Spagnolia was vicar at St. Francis de Sales Church in Roxbury, Mass., in 1971.

The priest sent a certified letter to the cardinal informing him he would remain as parish priest at St. Patrick's Church, but agreed he would not say Mass or perform the sacraments until the investigation was completed.

"I have done nothing," Spagnolia told hundreds of supportive parishioners at St. Patrick's Church on Feb. 25.

On Feb. 27, Spagnolia was served an eviction notice from Law requiring him to vacate St. Patrick's rectory. The notice did not specify the date by which the priest must leave.

Even before the Spagnolia case highlighted concerns about due process and the right to privacy, some people were beginning to question whether zero-tolerance policies such as Boston put in place recently represent the swing of the pendulum from one extreme to another.

"Everyone has the right to their good name," said Fr. Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils. "If there's an allegation, it's an allegation. The release of names of the accused without substantiation is questionable to my mind."

With many priests feeling they are now under a cloud because of the pedophilia scandal, Silva said the National Federation of Priests' Councils is issuing a letter to presbyteral council chairs. The Feb. 28 letter encourages priests to discuss among themselves the issue of sexual abuse, to learn more about the nature of pedophilia and its effects on both the victim and the perpetrator so that better policies can be put in place, and to probe and discover what is life-giving in the way priests live and what is not.

Silva said the National Federation of Priests' Councils will be meeting March 13 with the executive director of the Priestly Life and Ministry Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, with the president of the National Office for Continuing Education of Roman Catholic Clergy, and with Fr. Steve Rossetti, president of St. Luke Institute, to discuss how to help presbyteral councils get their priests to come together for reflection, discussion and healing.

Right now, many good and faithful priests are feeling devastated and demoralized, Silva said. The letter released by the National Federation of Priests' Councils urges priests not to withdraw from people but to bond more closely with them and to examine the system in which priests live to see whether it is supportive of their ministry. The council's letter is accompanied by a letter from Rossetti, who notes that the scandal is tainting St. Luke Institute as well. The institute assists religious who are suffering from a wide range of emotional and psychological problems. …

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