Priest Scandal Hurting Numbers at Mass

By Robin Washington and Eric Convey
Boston Herald [Boston MA]
March 10, 2003

With the clergy sexual abuse scandal in full force, the number of people attending Mass in the Archdiocese of Boston dropped dramatically last year as about 50,000 fewer parishioners attended weekly church services than in 2001.

And, despite an increase in the Bay State's Catholic population in recent years, the number of those joining the faith also fell dramatically, with a convocation at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross for prospective Catholics drawing only 600 yesterday, compared to about 1,000 last year and 770 five years ago.

The figures place Boston solidly in a national trend showing the scandal to have taken a toll both on weekly attendance and on giving to the church, according to a Gallup poll taken at the end of 2002.

"It's definitely gone down, though it varies greatly from parish to parish," said the Rev. Chris Coyne, a church spokesman.

In its annual census taken in October, the Boston church counted 318,297 parishioners attending Mass in the archdiocese, down from 369,648 in October 2001 and 389,536 in 1993.

With just over 2 million Catholics in the archdiocese, those numbers translate to only 15.5 percent of Boston area Catholics attending Mass, compared to about a third in Chicago and Washington, D.C.

One church that has felt the crunch is St. Paul's in Hingham - the one-time parish home of two convicted pedophiles, the Rev. John Hanlon and defrocked priest John J. Geoghan.

"It's down about 20 percent for sure," said Stan Doherty, a parishioner and member of the lay groups Call to Action and Voice of the Faithful.

Doherty said the church's past is a factor in the poor attendance, despite the best efforts of its pastor, the Rev. James Rafferty.

"He's a very, very good pastor. He's holding the place together the best he can but he's in a tough spot," he said.

Rafferty confirmed Doherty's attendance estimate, saying the scandal has resulted in "a difficult year for all of us."

But, he said, things have picked up since Christmas.

"We've turned the corner. I know by the increase in the offertory. This particular first Sunday of Lent was excellent," he said.

Turnout has also been low at Holy Cross Cathedral, with Sunday's 11 a.m. service often attracting 300 people or fewer.

The Rev. Robert Carr, the church's parochial vicar, attributes some of the small number to the resignation of Bernard Cardinal Law in December.

"You had the people who would go for the cardinal," he said.

But, he added, the cathedral is not a typical parish.

"Its demographics are not representative," he said. "It holds 2,000 people but it's designed for ceremonies that hold 2,000 people, not for every Sunday Mass."

David Yamane, a Notre Dame sociologist, said Mass attendance illustrates the serious concerns Catholics have about the church.

"If people aren't attending Mass, then the raison d'etre of the church is in question," he said.

"The central components of the faith - particularly the Eucharist - are only received in the context of Mass if you're able to make it to Mass."

One parish that has bucked the negative trend is St. Bridget's in Framingham, where Monsignor Francis V. Strahan reported standing room only at the family Mass yesterday and roughly 2,000 in total attendance.

"It was packed again," the pastor said. "Our attendance has been pretty good, if not even over the usual number. How to account for that I don't know, but we have a lot of young folks."

St. Bridget's also contributed to the archdiocese's numbers in another way as 11 future parishioners under Strahan's tutelage joined their peers at the cathedral to receive blessings from Bishop Richard G. Lennon, Law's interim successor.

The catechumens - converts to Catholicism - and candidates, or returning Catholics, will become full members of the church at the conclusion of Lent.

"God, never wanting in His generosity, has invited you on a very important journey," he told them.

Afterward, he commented: "It's a full cathedral, over 500 people who are being supported and encouraged and are stepping forward to become full members of the church community in Boston."

One of those is Susan Maritan of Holliston, who called herself "the odd woman out" in her family in which her husband and children are Catholic.

"I wanted to understand the Catholic Church better and be a partner, have our family all pray together and go church together," she said.

The church scandal has not deterred her, however.

"No, it hasn't at all," she said. "In fact, before I became Catholic I didn't really follow it. I'm following it more closely now, but it's not affecting my decision."

Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.