April 04, 2006

Farewell, Father Coonan

Telegram & Gazette

Dianne Williamson


The Rev. Joseph Coonan has learned that criminal law moves much faster than canon law.

The once-popular pastor of St. John’s Church heads to court today. He faces charges that he assaulted his mother and sister Feb. 27, while still awaiting a decision from Rome about a priesthood thrown into disarray in 2002 by allegations that he assaulted young boys before being ordained.

Meanwhile, his loyal but shrinking band of supporters is busy holding raffles and drumming up support for the priest, who is represented in the secular world by the lawyer who will likely be our next district attorney, who is hoping that the current district attorney drops the criminal charges against his clerical client.

All of which begs the unavoidable question: Since he’ll never clean up the mess, isn’t it time for Father Coonan to throw in the towel? How can this priest ever expect to resume a ministry tainted by such repugnant allegations of abuse?

Three years after the local diocese removed Father Coonan from his ministry, his well-meaning but misguided supporters remain steadfast in their love fest and committed to restoring him to the pulpit. Many say they don’t believe the allegations, even though at least 15 men have come forward to share strikingly similar stories, many involving the priest’s fondness for watching boys urinate, defecate or masturbate.

True, these alleged acts mostly took place in the 1970s, well before Father Coonan became a priest. He has never been charged in connection with the alleged abuse, mainly because the statute of limitations had expired. And, gee, he played cool music at his Sunday services and was even voted “Best Clergy” in the 2002 Worcester Magazine poll.

But what of his alleged victims? What of the men who were just 12 years old when the then-lay Joseph Coonan is accused of sexually assaulting them on camping trips? What of the men still haunted by their experience with someone they trusted? Haven’t we learned yet that seemingly stand-up guys are eminently capable of committing secret crimes?

Patricia McGrath is a member of the “Friends of Father Coonan” and author of a letter recently sent to some 600 supporters, asking for donations for a raffle to benefit the priest. Yesterday, she said support for the priest remains “phenomenal,” even though attendance at the monthly prayer vigil has dwindled.

Regarding the allegations of abuse, she said, “I personally think that anything I have thus heard has been placed out of context.” I asked her what that meant, and she said, “I don’t think he sexually assaulted anyone at all. I haven’t heard any supporters who think he’s capable of sexually assaulting anyone.”

I asked if she had spoken to any of the men who claim they were abused by Joseph Coonan. She said she hasn’t, but that she’s given the matter “a lot of prayerful consideration,” a process perhaps preferable because it’s less burdened by matters of fact.

As for secular issues, Father Coonan is due back in Dudley District Court today to face charges of domestic assault and battery, assault and battery on a person over 65 and intimidating a witness, after Oxford police received a 911 call Feb. 27 from his mother, who said she had a “problem” with her son. Mabel Coonan, 77, would tell police that her son tried to choke her. His sister, Patricia Loiselle, told police that he pulled her hair and pulled the phone from her hand when she tried to call police. Father Coonan has shared an apartment in Oxford with his mother since he was removed from his ministry.

“Mrs. Coonan stated that this has been an ongoing problem,” according to the Oxford police report. “She stated that (it) escalates when Joseph consumes alcohol.”

Yesterday, lawyer Joseph D. Early Jr. said his client denies assaulting his family but doesn’t deny that he was drinking. Mr. Early, who is running unopposed for Worcester County district attorney, said Father Coonan’s mother and sister are seeking to have the charges dismissed. The letter sent to Father Coonan’s supporters from Ms. McGrath claims that the incident was “blown way out of proportion” and that Father Coonan’s mother suffers from dementia.

The letter also urges supporters to write the Vatican in support of the priest. In 2002, the diocese placed Father Coonan on administrative leave and later asked him to resign as pastor of St. John’s. Father Coonan refused and has hired a canon lawyer to fight his removal. He has no active ministry but still receives his stipend as pastor, according to diocesan spokesman Raymond Delisle, who said the diocese is awaiting a ruling from Rome.

“He’s still looking to hold on to his pastorship,” Mr. Delisle said.

Thus the prayer vigils, the canon lawyer, the letter-writing campaign from the faithful, the division within the church of those who support Father Coonan and those who don’t, to say nothing of the continued grief of the alleged victims. How, I wonder, does three years of turmoil help a parish that the priest professes to love?

“He’s waiting for a decision so he can move on with his life,” Mr. Early said. “All he wants is a decision. He’s tried to do everything they’ve asked him to do but resign his pastorship.”

Too bad that the one thing he won’t do is the honorable thing.

Contact Dianne Williamson by e-mail at dwilliamson@telegram.com.

Posted by kshaw at April 4, 2006 08:19 AM