Parishoners Defend Priests and Speculate on Accusations

05/31/02 12:00AM By Steve Zind
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(Host) As Attorney General William Sorrell looks into sexual misconduct allegations against six active Vermont priests, members of the parishes are weighing their own responses. Some members are supportive of their priests, and others are waiting to see how the cases are resolved.

VPR's Steve Zind reports.


(Zind) Not all six priests have acknowledged their suspension by the Catholic Diocese while the investigations are underway. The most public announcement came from the Reverend Donal Ward in Vergennes. Ward detailed the allegations against him. He says while he was a priest in central Vermont, he routinely took groups of boys swimming at a local fitness center. Ward says the Bishop received two letters from mothers who were concerned about their children changing in the same locker room with the priest. Parishioners say Ward's openness has led to an outpouring of support.

Jack Spahn of Addison is among those who sent a petition to Bishop Kenneth Angell this week, declaring that Ward had done nothing wrong and urging the Bishop to support him. Spahn says over 80% of the parishioners signed the petition. Spahn says he supports Ward's decision to go public with the allegations against him:

(Spahn) "I think it was the best thing that he could have done. He was able to explain it to us without us finding out that he had been accused and not having any idea and just drawing your own conclusions."

(Zind) Last week in Randolph, it was announced that the Reverend John Milanese had also been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation. Milanese says there is a single allegation against him dating back almost twenty years.

Paul Lissandrello is Deacon of the Randolph parish. Lissandrello says Milanese asked him to read a statement to parishioners last weekend. Lissandrello says the congregation reacted with disbelief at the news. He senses there's a great deal of support for Milanese. He says he's concerned that innocent priests are being hurt in the effort to investigate criminal activities by a few members of the clergy.

(Lissandrello) "Father John is a person of high moral standards. This is just incredible to people. This whole crisis that the church is going through, it's horrible to hear some of the things that have gone on and how people have been hurt. It's scandalous. Then there's the other part that we're going through and that is that people's reputations are being destroyed by allegations."

(Zind) Lissandrello says there's a great deal of support for Milanese among Randolph parishoners.

In Rutland, the Reverend James McShane has acknowledged he, too, is under investigation. McShane has offered no other details. Members of Rutland's Immaculate Heart Parish are reluctant to speak about the situation. One parishioner says she and others are taking a wait and see attitude. Another says he is also reserving judgment until more is known about the allegations against McShane, stressing that the priest is innocent until proven guilty.

Meanwhile there are three other priests in Vermont who have decided not to make their suspensions public. The absence of a priest who is ill or on vacation may now be arousing concerns among parishioners that their priest is also under investigation by the attorney general.

For Vermont Public Radio, I'm Steve Zind.
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