A Fresh Start in Precarious Times
Catholics Look to New Bishop with Hopes of Healing and Renewal

New London Day [Connecticut]
June 1, 2003

The Most Rev. Michael R. Cote carries the burden of expectation, the tentative hope of 227,000 Catholics that he will bring healing to their corner of the church that has seen its image tarnished nationwide.

Cote took the mantle of the fifth bishop of Norwich May 14, replacing the Most Rev. Daniel A. Hart at a transitional moment for the Roman Catholic Church.

Unlike the archdiocese of Boston, the diocese of Norwich has not been a lightning rod for national attention. But the diocese that covers much of eastern Connecticut echoes the problems that beleaguer the Catholic Church as a whole: thirsty coffers, a dearth of young priests, stubborn lay reform groups and a Catholic high school that has lost the flush enrollment of decades past.

In addition, allegations of sexual abuse continue to dog the diocese. Norwich has agreed to divide the cost of a $700,000 settlement with an accused priest, but at least three other cases are pending.

As the entire church comes to reckoning with endemic abuse, some local Catholics are expressing exhaustion and a desire to move on.

"The word 'weary' comes to mind," said the Rev. Robert Washabaugh, pastor of St. Mary Star of the Sea in New London, when asked to assess morale in his parish. "Part of that weariness is a recognition that there is so much more work to be done - good work. This continues to stand in our way."

Last year's bad press descended on the Catholic Church at a time when the number of priests is declining, Washabaugh said.

"A very real fear is the future of a priesthood that is right now not getting good publicity," he said. "It might not be seen as an attractive option for young people."

To serve a population of more than 227,000 Catholics, the diocese employs 138 priests and oversees 57 others who belong to religious orders, according to the official 2002 directory of the church in the United States.

Hart, the retiring bishop, says he is heartened that four deacons will answer a call to the priesthood this year, the largest group to be ordained in recent memory. But the diocese's priests are, on the whole, an aging population. Among its 62 pastors, or heads of parishes, only two are younger than 40. None is younger than 30.

From 1997 to 2002, the diocese directed parish "clusters" to assess their particular strengths in case the parishes were someday forced to merge because of the lack of priests.

"We're trying to get people to break down the isolation between parishes, so it would not be a case of strangers joining up," said Sister Mary Alice Kline, coordinator of pastoral planning.

In November 2002 the last cluster - which includes St. Mary and St. Joseph churches in New London, St. Mary Mother of the Redeemer and Sacred Heart churches in Groton, and Our Lady of Lourdes in Gales Ferry - completed their 10-month study.

All of these parishes currently have at least one full-time priest, but clergy are becoming more scarce. Two years ago, St. Mary in New London was served by three permanent priests and one who visited from another parish, but that number recently was whittled down to one.

"We were looking at ways we can work with the other parishes and get by with less, bluntly," said David Madole, chairman of the parish futures committee at St. Mary.

The parishes discussed linking youth programs, perhaps cooperating to hire a youth minister, Madole said. At St. Mary, these planning sessions also led to the installment of a pastoral associate and a business manager, two lay people who assumed some of the administrative tasks once handled by priests.

The past year has been enervating financially for St. Bernard High School in Uncasville, one of six Catholic high schools in the diocese. The school has managed to stay in the bounds of its budget but had to absorb a number of unforeseen expenses, Principal Roy Dado said.

The need for renovations is mounting as the 40-year-old building ages, Dado said. The roof recently had to be mended, and several pieces of maintenance equipment wore out this past year. In addition, a day-care center that used to lease space in the school has moved, ending some rental income.

"We've had a lot of financial hits," Dado said. He is leaving St. Bernard this month to take a job at another school.

St. Bernard might seem a fading giant, a place with a wisp of the influence it had before enrollment began to decline in the late 1980s. From a peak of 1,350 students, the school has 340 today. The institution that once fielded championship sports teams is, admissions director Jamie DePaola says proudly, a place where everyone has the chance to wear a varsity uniform.

"You can make a team here," she said.

Alumnus Bill Dittman, a New London police captain, speculates that the numbers started to shrink at St. Bernard when Electric Boat scaled back its workforce in the late '80s, sending a shudder through the local economy.

Another factor is the relative seclusion of the school, which relocated to Uncasville from New London more than 30 years ago. "It's an awfully long bus ride," Dittman said.

But Dawn Londregan, president of the alumni association, disputes any suggestion that St. Bernard has entered its dotage.

"I'm thrilled to have my children there," she said. That is a feeling the administration hopes will spread as it tries to shore up enrollment by abating the $5,675 tuition by $250 for students with alumni parents.

Three years ago, the school hired DePaola, its first full-time admissions director and official promoter. With a goal of 125 students per class, DePaola's office has intensified its marketing campaign and recruited from towns too small to have their own high schools, whose students might otherwise attend Norwich Free Academy or other schools.

Her main talking point is the academic climate, which she says has not declined in tandem with enrollment. "People are looking for rigorous, challenging courses," she said, noting that 95 percent of students continue on to college. "Other people look for an environment where their kids can say, 'I feel safe here.'

"Ten or 15 years ago, if you were Catholic you'd send your kids to Catholic schools," DePaola continued. "That's not the case anymore. You have to market the case for faith-based education."

Lean times also have touched the Bishop Flanagan Ministry Center in Uncasville, home to some of the 27 ministries run by the diocese.

Contributions to the 2002 Annual Bishop's Appeal - the financial lifeline of the church ministries - dried up 7 percent short of the $3 million goal, as Catholics tucked away their checkbooks, distressed by the scandals and financially stretched by the weak economy.

All ministries had to absorb a 10 percent decrease in funding, and four lost their directors, effectively going out of business.

Richard Costello, director of the Norwich ABA, said contributions to the 2003 appeal have so far been healthy. "We are running ahead of last year - but not way ahead," said Costello, who expects to meet goal by the time the appeal concludes in September.

This year, the diocese is broadcasting the message that ABA funds are not used to bankroll legal fees, which are paid by insurance.

"The Annual Bishop's Appeal has never been used to pay for legal fees," Costello said. "All money directly funds the ministries."

In the aftermath of the abuse scandals, the 2002 Norwich results were proportionate to those in the Hartford diocese, where the 2002 bishop's appeal raised $6.1 million of the $6.5 million goal, a 6 percent discrepancy. In Connecticut, only the diocese of Bridgeport outstripped its goal of $8 million by $100,000.

All fared better than the cardinal's appeal in the archdiocese of Boston, the epicenter of the abuse scandals, where contributions foundered nearly 50 percent short of the advertised goal of $16 million.

To restore the blighted trust of donors, the archdiocese of Boston announced in early May that it will disseminate its itemized budget online and in the diocesan newspaper.

The Diocese of Norwich makes a nominal disclosure of its budget. In the March edition of The Four County Catholic, the free diocesan newspaper, it publishes its total revenue with a pie chart showing how funds are allocated, but the report does not list line items.

The release of the 2002 report has been delayed by the changeover of bishops. In the meantime, the newly hired finance director, Margaret Castor, declined to release details about the nature of the diocese's investments or how they are performing in the soft economy. Members of the diocesan finance council also declined to comment, deferring to the bishop.

"I'm a good soldier," one member of the council said.

Lay reform groups that coalesced in the wake of the abuse crisis have called for a more transparent church structure that grants the laity some oversight of church affairs.

And as the priest shortage worsens, necessity is forcing some parishes to hire lay pastoral associates, business managers and others to perform jobs formerly handled by priests, effectively bringing them into conformity with such demands.

Nevertheless, groups like Voice of the Faithful are not relaxing their campaigns.

"I think people are still very much concerned," said Robert Marrion, co-founder of the local chapter. "The crisis, as far as we're concerned, is the way the crimes of sexual abuse of children were handled by the church. That crisis continues," he said, in spite of the guidelines adopted by bishops at their national conference last year.

Marrion has no formal way to quantify support for VOTF, but he said even non-members have been generous with their encouragement.

"It surprises us sometimes," Marrion said, "when we hear from people whose views we wouldn't have been sure about before." Locally, VOTF claims roughly 70 active members, including many older Catholics who have spent decades in the church.

Hart did not permit VOTF to meet on church grounds, and the new bishop comes to Norwich from the diocese of Portland, Maine, where the group was likewise barred from congregating on church property.

Marrion and his wife, Grace, have sent a letter to Cote and hope to meet with him sometime after this year's bishops' conference, to be held June 19-21 in St. Louis, Mo.

"We're optimistic he will meet with us and recognize the fact that we're good Catholics, faithful Catholics" Marrion said. "This is not a fringe group, a bunch of nuts trying to get rid of the pope. We hope to establish a friendly, open, long-term relationship."

In a May interview, Cote said VOTF was a superfluous entity set up in "parallel" to the lay bodies, such as the finance and pastoral councils, that already advise the bishop.

At the same time, he has billed himself as an open-minded leader who does not hand down policy without broad consultation. He said he has a "general sort of view" about VOTF that will not crystallize until he becomes familiar with the group locally.

"My first responsibility is to listen and to find out where Norwich is as a church and what its greatest needs are," he said six days before he was installed as bishop.

This attitude has, by many accounts, produced a mood of cautious hope in the diocese.

"I think the bishop is a marvelous sign of a new beginning," said Kathleen McGuire, a parishioner at St. Joseph's in New London.

As the Catholic Church continues its daily ministry, in spite of financial difficulty, its challenge will be to right its public image, a process that has already begun.

"This year has been much, much better," said the Rev. Walter Nagle of St. Joseph parish in Willimantic and an East Lyme native. "I think it's going to take a lot of healing. But I think people are honestly looking for the best in priests. When they see priests out there doing hard work, like showing up at the bedside of a dying relative, those are the things that mean the most to them."

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