March 17, 2010

New mystery for Catholics to ponder

— So much for testing the waters. When it comes to the Roman Catholic Church's sexual abuse scandal, rest assured they're still boiling.

Bishop Richard Malone found that out the hard way last week. First, he announced that he was letting the Rev. Paul Coughlin return to the pulpit; then, just two days later, he did an about-face and put Coughlin back in pastoral limbo.

''The public outcry over my decision to allow (Coughlin) some public ministry has made it clear I misjudged the possibility of an effective ministry for Fr. Coughlin,'' Malone said in a prepared statement Friday. ''And it's clear that many are deeply angry and hurt that I took such action.''

Less clear is why Malone didn't see this coming.

To recap: Coughlin, 73, was ordered by Malone in 2004 to resign as pastor of two South Portland churches for not reporting allegations of sexual abuse against a church volunteer.

The volunteer, John Skinner, actually lived with Coughlin in his South Portland rectory from 1999-2001 -- 10 years after Coughlin first heard the abuse allegations and failed to alert his superiors. (In fact, Skinner became certified in youth ministry while living in the rectory.)

What's more, Coughlin himself was accused in 2002 of sexual misconduct with a minor in 1985. While that never led to criminal charges, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland conceded last week that ''it is reasonable to believe that there was inappropriate physical contact at that time.''

Despite all of that, Malone decided last November to let Coughlin resume his priestly duties -- provided he do so only on a fill-in basis with parishes that invite him in (none had).

''It's been three and a half years,'' Sue Bernard, the diocese's spokeswoman, explained last week before the bishop reversed course. ''I think (Malone) feels it's been a long enough time.''

He felt wrong.

Maybe the backlash stemmed from Malone's initial promise to keep Coughlin away from South Portland, Bangor and Wells -- all places where he associated with Skinner -- because his ''presence could cause divisiveness within these parishes.''

Sound familiar? Back when they still thought they could contain the sex-abuse scandal, the bishops used the same shell game to keep offending priests one step ahead of the angry congregations.

Or maybe Malone's flock resented the delay in announcing Coughlin's reinstatement. Only after this newspaper inquired about it did Malone publicly acknowledge Coughlin's change in status.

''I fully intended to tell the public of my decision before Fr. Coughlin returned to the ministry,'' Malone said Friday.

Right. And exactly when (not to mention how) would that have happened?

Or maybe folks noticed that Malone, in announcing Coughlin's reinstatement, never once used the word ''victim.'' Coughlin may have had ''adequate time to reflect on his actions,'' as Malone put it, but what about those who suffer to this day by his negligence?

To be fair, it was hard to doubt Malone's sincerity when he apologized and admitted, ''I dropped the ball.''

That said, Roman Catholics all over Maine are left to wonder why he picked it up in the first place.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

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