Perspective from a Boston Catholic who still loves and serves the Church
If you happened to drive down Route 9 in Wellesley, Massachusetts any time back in the 90's, it would have been hard to miss St. James the Great Catholic Church at 900 Worcester St. However, if you drove by there today, you would definitely miss it. Sold to the city by the Archdiocese of Boston, the parish buildings were torn down earlier this year. The lot stands vacant, waiting to be turned into a park, maybe a skating rink, some kind of recreational facility for the Greater Boston community.
Kelly Tolman hasn't seen the movie Spotlight, but she doesn't have to. The setting of the film was the setting of her youth. She's an Irish-Italian Catholic who grew up in the suburbs of Boston in the 90’s, and St. James the Great was her church home.
“We were there every single Sunday, you know?” she recalled. “Every time there was an event, we were there. We spent so much time at church, because my mom was so involved, my dad was so involved, and everyone had all these roles, as lectors and on the councils…”
Now a wife, mother of four, community activist and good friend of mine, Kelly is the only one of her siblings still practicing the Catholic faith. So of course I thought about her while watching the movie, because the obvious question is… Why? When those of us who have been indirectly affected by the corruption can respond with such outrage, how does she explain the decision to remain Catholic after being so personally affected?
She doesn't talk about the priest sex abuse scandal very often, because she’s not a huge fan of drudging up the past. But when I told her what I was working on, and asked her if she'd be willing to tell me about it, she graciously welcomed me into her home, and let me ask a bunch of questions over a cup of tea at her kitchen table.
So this is this the story from Kelly’s perspective.
The Priests of St. James the Great
Kelly’s earliest memories of St. James the Great are actually really good ones. “We had, at the time, Father Shea, who was a fabulous, fabulous, fabulous priest. And he still is,” she said.
But right around the time Kelly started to approach adolescence—a time already unnerving enough for most people—things started to get exceptionally weird in Kelly’s world. Everything seemed to unhinge when Father Shea was assigned to another parish.
“We had another priest come in named Father Vartzelis. We would call him Father Farts-A-Lot.” Little Kelly did not particularly care for Father Farts-A-Lot. She proceeded to impersonate the very nasally, aloof manner in which he spoke.
At first, she thought their parish had been assigned two new priests, because another one also started saying Mass at around the same time. She later learned that this second priest had actually been there for years. His names was Father James Power.
“He was there the whole time Father Shea was, but he had never said Mass there before. He never wore a collar, he never showed his face. I didn’t recognize this man. And no one understood it. It was weird, and this was all through the lens of a kid, me just not getting it.”
Of course, it would all make a lot more sense later when the truth came out. Power had been accused of sexually abusing a minor in 1993. He was designated as “unassigned-special” until the lawsuit was settled in 1996, and then he was officially assigned to Kelly’s church as a temporary parochial vicar (associate pastor) where he stayed for five years, according to his assignment records. Then, once the lid blew off the story with the Spotlight reports in 2002, Power was once again classified as “unassigned.”
There was also Father Fred Barr. “My parents became very close friends with him,” Kelly said. “Every single weekend, he was in our house. We would make him dinner, and he would just be there. And I hated him. I know that sounds terrible… Something about him made me so uncomfortable.”
Perhaps that something was related to the time Father Barr went apple picking with Kelly and her family, and exposed himself to her and her two little brothers by pulling down his pants and urinating all over the apples.
I’ll give you a moment to let the chunks settle back down in your stomach. I know I definitely needed one.……
We good? Okay, let’s keep going.
Kelly never felt physically threatened by Barr, and she feels confident that he never touched her brothers either, but she cannot say as much for some of her peers. Kelly and her brothers were part of a strong family. And as the movie Spotlight points out, the abusive priests would target kids from struggling or broken families, because they had more shame and were more likely not to say anything.
Barr also frequented the home of a single mother in the parish community who had two teenage sons. Kelly remembers there being a lot of tension between Barr and the two boys, and she never felt comfortable at their house.
“I don’t know if anything ever happened to those two boys. I do know that [Barr] was accused, and that he is on administrative leave, and Father Barr is no longer a working priest in the diocese,” she said.
According to Barr’s records, he was accused in 2009 of sexually assaulting a minor at the parish he had been assigned to right before St. James the Great. The records indicate that after Kelly’s church, he was assigned to another parish for only 3 months, and then inexplicably unassigned for four years until he resurfaced as a temporary parochial vicar at St. Patrick’s in Watertown for 4 years. He was finally placed on leave in 2009 due to the allegations.
“I know the struggle that I had with my own parents when I was a child,” Kelly said, “because I was like, ‘This is a bad person.’ And they wouldn’t listen to me. But I don’t get mad at them for not listening to me. I feel bad that for some reason we were under a mindset where we couldn’t be critical of priests. Is it wrong to talk poorly about a priest, and to attack a priest? Yes. It’s wrong to do that to any human being. But is it necessary to point out, ‘Okay, you may be a priest, this may be your vocation, but this is a serious issue we have?’ Yes, that’s our responsibility, and I think a lot of Catholics are still nervous to do that.”
Still, as disturbing as it was to have two priests in her life turn out to be among the accused in the Boston priest scandal, they aren’t the ones who seem to haunt Kelly the most.
“Father Miceli would say Mass for us about every six weeks or so, and I loved it,” she recalled. “It was a really good Sunday when he came.”
Reverend Paul Miceli was the Director of Ministerial Personnel for the Archdiocese of Boston from 1994 to 2001, serving directly under Cardinal Law. Kelly remembers Miceli as a kind, passionate, magnetic priest, and she felt especially drawn to the Mass when He celebrated it. Her parents loved him, too.
“What happened with Father Miceli,” Kelly began to explain, “was with the big mean priest, and I forget his name… It starts with a G… Gonaghan? Gahnagan? He was probably in the Boston Globe story…”
“Geoghan?” I asked.
“Yeah, he was the main one in the movie.”
“Yes! Father Geoghan.”
Kelly explained that many people—not the archdiocese, but protesters and activists—have held Father Miceli personally responsible for helping cover-up and move around the offending priests. One particular mother with several children abused by Geoghan claimed she told Miceli about what was happening back in the 70’s, and he reassured her that he would take care of it, he convinced her to keep quiet, and ultimately, Miceli did not do what he needed to do the keep the children safe.
“When all this was brought to court, [Father Miceli] testified that she never came,” Kelly explained. “He testified that she had called, and that he never knew the specifics of the situation. And she is saying that she went to him, and sat down with him. So clearly one of them is lying. I don’t know who. And I could speculate, but there’s no point.”
Our Lifeline to the Eucharist
Kelly and her entire family ended-up leaving the church in the scandal aftermath. St. James the Great was shut down, and the property sold to the city of Wellesley for $4.1 million, nearly one-tenth the cost of Power’s $35 million settlement alone.
“Most Catholics, at least in that diocese, were in the same position I was in,” she explained. “We had our Masses said by these priests. We went to confession with these priests. We were betrayed by these priests.”
Around the time everything came to light, Kelly went away to college out-of-state, and decided that church was not going to be a part of the experience. Understandable. But as it would turn out, she wouldn’t get to graduate at the same time as most of her peers. At 19, Kelly found herself pregnant, and seeking an abortion. Through a series of events—interventions by the Holy Spirit, really—she ended-up not going through with the abortion, and now her 13-year-old son is one of my favorite kids.
Kelly’s life did not pan out the way she had intended, but she found—as so many of us do when we get lost at some point—that not getting our own way can be such a precious gift. It is a grace to try life without God, and realize that it is no life at all.
“I had to go back,” she said, “And I felt like I had to relearn everything.”
So she did.
“It was a long time before I could go to confession. I just felt uncomfortable, and I didn’t want to do it, “Kelly admitted. “But I did it, and it was a fabulous experience. I’m so thankful.”
In order to understand the next part of Kelly’s testimony and why she came back, you have to understand at least a little something about the Catholic belief in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ. There’s a common misconception that Catholics believe God is only present at church. We believe God is present everywhere, of course. But in the sacraments of the Church, Christ is not just present in the abstract, spiritual sense; He is actually physically present. The heavenly dimension comes crashing into the earthly realm in a way that heaven and earth touch, and exist together in one space. At the very center of the this sacramental life of worship is the Eucharist, our communion, the very Body and Blood of Jesus Christ veiled in simple bread and wine. It doesn’t symbolize Him; it is Him.
(Yes, I know that it sounds strange. So I’ll sit right here and wait while you tell me which part of Christianity sounds less strange.)
Ultimately, what drew Kelly back was her understanding of the Church’s divinity balanced with a new, clarified understanding of the Church’s humanity.
“I realized of course, we are a church made of human beings who fall, and sin,” Kelly explained. “And I realized that without priests, we don’t have the sacraments. We don’t have the Eucharist, we don’t have confession. And if I was the Devil, whom would I attack? I would attack our lifeline to the Eucharist. Our lifeline to the sacraments.”
She went on to explain that if we lump all of our priests together, and get mad at all of them as a whole, then we stop praying for them, that is exactly what the Devil wants. He wants for us to point the finger, and use their failings as an excuse to not be faithful ourselves.
“The Devil is clapping,” she said. “But it wasn’t until I stood back and I realized… oh my gosh… the amazing damage that was done. The unbelievable, excruciating damage that was done. Seeing churches literally bulldozed to the ground. And seeing a place that, at one point, had a consecration of the Eucharist every single day… is now maybe a car dealership… I mean, that is evil.”
Since I’ve known Kelly, I’ve witnessed her have wonderful friendships with some of our local priests. But she admits that sometimes she still struggles with getting frustrated at priests, especially if they do not seem to take the Eucharist seriously. Remember what I told you earlier about the Eucharist? That is definitely the Catholic belief. However, it is not always the Catholic awareness. Contemporary evangelicals often accuse more traditional Christians (if they even acknowledge that Catholics are Christians) of simply going through the motions. It would be a huge lie if we didn’t admit that the phenomenon does exist, even in some priests. It is not the essence or ultimate reality of Catholic Christianity, but it definitely happens. Too much, unfortunately.
“I read this prayer once,” Kelly said, “or I don’t know what it was—a narrative—but it said, ‘Don’t worry about being upset with the priest for not showing proper reverence. Christ is up there with him right now, and He is hurting enough for both of us.’ It was the most beautiful thing I ever read on this issue, and I refer to it a lot.”
She continued, “And then, I thought about it in regards to Father Geoghan, who ended up being murdered in prison. I thought, okay, he took the vows for the priesthood, and clearly did not understand what that meant. So imagine how empty that is. Having this vocation, being called to it, clearly not fulfilling it in the way he should, hurting people the whole entire time, not having a wife or a family, not having that legacy even, and being murdered and dying, and just… I would not want to stand before the Lord and be that person. That is so devastating. And then I thought how devastated Christ must be to know that… him, you know, being in persona Christi, being at that spot, but having that sin, it must just break Jesus’ heart. And I just think of the pain that Jesus is going through. But He still loves us, and He is still forgiving. So I just… I don’t know. I guess it took a long time for me to see it like that.”
Kelly then thought about her family, especially her brothers. “I think, what if things were different in our church? What if our relationships with our priests were different? What if this didn’t happen? Would [my brothers] still be practicing?”
Show Me the Unicorns
St. James the Great Catholic Church didn’t come down overnight. Several of the parishioners were outraged, and decided to hold a vigil in efforts to keep their place of worship from being destroyed. The law was that no one could be physically removed from the building. The workers had to wait until the building was empty before they could demolish it. “My dad was like, ‘this vigil won’t last one week,’” Kelly said. “It lasted for years.”
For over seven years the parishioners fought to reopen the church, keeping vigil, never leaving the buildings empty, but this past September, they finally lost the fight. The skeleton that was left of the once dignified structure was finally leveled to the ground.
Meanwhile, as her childhood church buildings have been in the process of fading away, Kelly has been extremely busy with a building of her own. Trying to buy one, actually. It's the building right next door to the local abortion clinic in our community where Kelly and a team of passionate volunteers plan to facilitate their crisis pregnancy resource center called Seneca, Choices for Life. She recently made an appearance on EWTN’s program At Home With Jim and Joy where she shared about the awesome work she’s doing to support parents who find themselves dealing with the struggles of an unplanned pregnancy. She describes it as the organization she needed when she was in that position. Kelly has until the end of December to raise $150,000 in order to purchase the building. If you missed the episode, you can watch it here. And if you'd like to help her purchase the building, you can do that here.
Kelly’s parents have started going back to church as well. “I’m so thankful,” she said. “I think my dad even goes to daily Mass now. I nearly cried when he told me. But they have been church shopping, which is funny that they say that. They’re like, ‘We feel like protestants.’”
Her parents are now attending Mass at a church in the north end of Boston. “That’s the Italian part,” Kelly explained. “They said the priest is just so human, and humble, and challenges them with his homily. I think they’ve found a place where they’re like, ‘Yeah, this is what we’ve been looking for. This is what we want.’”
She says her brothers are still pretty anti-Catholic, though. “It’s to the point where, last Christmas, one of my brothers sat there making fun of the Bible at Christmas dinner, and he was saying, ‘Unicorns are mentioned in the Bible, like, 52 times Kelly.’ So, rather than getting angry at him, I got a Bible, and I was like, ‘Show me one time. Show me the unicorns.’ And he was like, ‘Well, I guess they’re not.’ After he went through it for an hour.”
“Hold on,” I interjected. “Your brother went through the Bible for an hour looking for the unicorns?”
“Oh yeah! He legitimately did! I was like, ‘Tim, pull it together buddy!’”
“At least you got him to read the Bible,” I laughed.
“I know! I was like, ‘Somebody take a picture! Bible in front of Tim, and he’s turning the pages!”
I asked her if there was something her brothers, and most people raised Catholic in our generation for that matter, aren’t seeing that she wishes they could. She didn’t know how to answer the question at first, but then I got the sense that she could speak from her own experience. “They’re subscribing to a culture where they’ve turned to themselves in times of trouble, rather than turning to Christ. And they’re turning to themselves for the answers, for the solutions… and it’s clearly not working.”
But considering all that’s happened, can we really blame them for not jumping at the opportunity to trust anyone but themselves? We live in a culture where people are so sick of being lied to and patronized by their leaders that we are seriously considering electing Donald Trump for president, even if his only real virtue is that he seems to be a straight shooter. DONALD TRUMP, you guys! For PRESIDENT! Because… at least he’s honest? Seriously. That is how desperate we are for truth. Transparency. Authenticity. And there’s a reason why no one expects to find it in the Church anymore.
Take the scandalizing priests from Kelly’s childhood, for example. In 2009, Power was reinstated as a senior priest in the Archdiocese of Boston, even though the very same archdiocese secretly settled one of the lawsuits against him back in the 90’s. I’d be truly fascinated to hear the convoluted explanation as to why this decision was both just and prudent. Also, there are a few earnest idividuals still seeking openness from Father Miceli who is now the Dean of Seminarians at Pope St. John XXIII Seminary in Weston, Mass. I’ll join them in that prayer, especially since one of the seminarians likely to be ordained in our own diocese this coming year is about to graduate from that very seminary. In the meantime, so many Catholics are bemoaning the shortage of men willing to answer the call to the priesthood, and I’m sitting here reading a ton of articles to make sure the facts I present are congruent with reality, finding that in most of them, the Church had no comment.
And when there was a comment, it was always something really canned and fluffy.
Okay, look… I may have only taken one introductory level course in Public Relations, but I did get and A in it, so I know what I’m talking about, okay? Or I at least know enough to say with confidence that this is exactly the worst way to handle a crisis. We cannot keep trying to conduct an organization in the 21st century as though we are still living in the dark ages where the general population was comprised of uneducated individuals with no access to information, and no formal evidence with which to think critically for themselves. In order to start regaining credibility, the Church leadership has to open up, disclose what happened from the inside out, and use every possible channel to communicate what we're doing to make reparations and rebuild trust. And it has to happen now. Not like when Pope St. John Paul II was officially apologizing for all this stuff that happened a bazillion years ago because no one had done that yet. Now.
The fact that there is so much information available to this generation could be an excellent opportunity for the Catholic Church to really shine, because when one is truly seeking, and does have enough information about the roots of modern Christianity, the case for genuine Catholicism is ridiculously strong. But instead of being the Light of the World that we’re meant to be—that awesome City on a Hill that Jesus said cannot be hidden—some of our leaders have turned in on themselves, oppressing the light that lives within the Church, creating a ginormous black hole in the analogical galaxy of Truth so that all most people feel they can do to survive is run—run as far away as possible. And we wonder why everyone seems so lost, as if we didn’t play a role in losing them.
Meanwhile, the tabernacle is occupied, the sanctuary lamp is glowing, and the altar awaits.
Kelly's been thinking about Father Miceli a lot lately, even before I told her about the movie. She still prays for him, and has been considering reaching out to him, but so far has decided against it.
"What would you say to him?" I asked.
"I don't know," she said with a long pause. "I'd thank him for the role he played in my life. He meant a lot to me..."
I could tell there was more, but I didn't press the issue. Whatever words were forming in her heart to say to her favorite childhood priest who got caught up in scandal, they were forming and waiting for the right time to be said to him.
“How do we recover from this?” I asked, taking another sip of tea.
“I don’t know,” Kelly replied. “I really don’t know how you fix it. I don’t.”
She does suspect that it has something to do with the new generation of priests coming into leadership, and how we will relate to them.
“I think we fix it by having good priests come in and be humble, and realize that unfortunately, you’ve got a mess to clean up,” she answered. “I think seeing that will bring people back, because maybe they’ll start seeing bits and pieces of what the Catholic faith really is, and it will resonate inside where they’re like, ‘Oh yeah! I was missing that. Maybe this is the medicine I need right now.’ You know what I mean? And then, they go to Mass once. And then they go to Mass twice. And then they form a relationship with this priest, and then they think, when they have a problem, ‘Maybe I should ask him. Maybe I should pray about it. Maybe I should get his advice.’”
There does seem to be a lot riding on the shoulders of our younger priests. Perhaps they’re the ones I should talk to next, you think?
I’m on it.
Update: Jan. 3, 2016
Kelly received the support she needed to purchase the building next to the abortion clinic. Seneca, Choices for Life closed on their new property a few days ago, and today, a small crowd of us gathered as our priest blessed the building.
My husband, son and I spent Christmas dinner with Kelly and her family, including her parents and her brother Tim. And that, my friends, is a whole new story waiting to be written.
Catholics on 'Spotlight', Part 1: I knew about the priest sex abuse scandal, and I became Catholic anyway
Catholics on 'Spotlight', Part 3: Scandals, sexuality and the monster at the table (off the record insights from a Catholic priest)
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