Father Fixit

After weeks of revelations about priest abuse and church cover-ups, Father James Flavin didn't expect good news when he opened The Boston Globe one February morning. But he was unprepared for a story that brought the scandal disturbingly close to his own rectory. Four men were alleging years of abuse by Father Joseph Welsh, the priest at St. Nicholas, just down the road from Flavin's own parish in Brockton, Mass. Within hours the Boston archdiocese removed Welsh, and the local bishop called on Flavin to take command of St. Nicholas and help the devastated parish heal. The following Sunday Flavin stood at the altar beside the bishop, and they engaged in a ritual not found in any missal: imploring parents to ask their children whether their old priest might have abused them, too. "There is no rulebook for this," Flavin says. "We're going on our instincts."

Last week authorities arrested Paul Shanley, an alleged sex predator who may soon rival priest turned felon John Geoghan in infamy, and charged him with child rape. Meanwhile the Boston archdiocese announced it can't afford a proposed settlement that would have paid up to $30 million to abuse victims; the reversal has infuriated victims. The drumbeat of news affects every Roman Catholic, but parishes like St. Nicholas carry a special burden, because they've lost their own priest to the scandal. Like the members of at least 177 other parishes around the country, worshipers at St. Nicholas are re-evaluating their relationship with a man they trusted while addressing more pragmatic concerns, such as who's going to say the 9 a.m. mass. And for consolation and guidance they're relying on priests like Father Flavin, who serve a fixit role similar to "turnaround" CEOs who take over bankrupt companies. Experts say that with strong leadership, congregations can emerge from this experience with their faith renewed; less successful "after-pastors" can factionalize churches and drive down attendance. "It depends on the character and personality of the man who comes in," says Jason Berry, who's researched priest sex abuse for 15 years. "It's an unenviable position to be in."

With priests in short supply, these can be difficult jobs to fill. Flavin now splits his time between St. Nicholas and his own parish at St. Edward. At 40, he is energetic and personable--traits that help him juggle his expanded duties. He spent the 1980s working in Dorchester, a gritty Boston neighborhood. "If someone got arrested, they called the family priest, not an attorney," he says. Among the troubled kids he helped there was the actor Mark Wahlberg, who still calls Flavin each week.

Like most replacement priests, Flavin arrived at St. Nicholas to find a parish filled with anger, anxiety and disbelief. In the first weeks he held two parish meetings. A social worker attended in case the dialogue brought up repressed memories in other victims. Flavin has always been a straight talker, but his "Ask me anything" candor in dealing with the church's shortcomings has impressed the new parish. Asked at one meeting why anyone should trust priests in this environment, he replied: "I wouldn't trust a priest right now, either." When people criticize the archdiocese and Cardinal Bernard Law, he doesn't argue. "They screwed up royally," he says. His flock's biggest worries revolve around the future of St. Nicholas, a small working-class parish that, even before the scandal, had begun sharing resources (like religious-education classes) with the larger St. Edward. Flavin has cut back further, eliminating Thursday and Friday masses. With Father Welsh gone, "the question on everybody's mind is, 'Are they going to close the church?' " says Tina Macrina, a member of the parish council. Officials say they plan to keep it open, though they'll keep merging operations; the two parishes will soon share one newsletter.

Welsh's whereabouts are unknown. Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy Cruz confirms "an ongoing investigation"; a parishioner who's exchanged e-mail with Welsh says the priest maintains his innocence. Meanwhile, Welsh's former parishioners are recalibrating memories of the priest they thought they knew. Several who blame the church's problems on homosexual priests say Welsh's frequent vacations in Provincetown, a predominantly gay community, should have aroused suspicion. Father Robert Costello, who shared the rectory with him for five years, recalls that while many other priests were addressing the abuse scandal in their homilies during January and February, Welsh did so just once. "You know [now] he was talking about himself--he knew that, but we didn't," he says.

Congregations that lose a priest for abuse are often split by the event, says Nancy Myer Hopkins, author of "The Congregational Response to Clergy Betrayals of Trust." Often a large group continues supporting the pastor no matter what. At St. Nicholas, Welsh's fans recall his homilies filled with historical allusions, his frequent visits to shut-ins and his teasing sense of humor; detractors call him temperamental and profane. Some supporters suspect the allegations were ginned up by "victims" hungry for lawsuit settlements; more neutral parishioners say Welsh is at least entitled to a presumption of innocence. "Personally, I'd like to see Father Joe back at the parish again," says Ross Shaw, head usher at the 9 a.m. mass. But John Shea, whose 9-year-old son Richard received his first communion from Welsh, recently replaced the big framed picture of his son and the priest that they kept in the dining room. Now the frame holds a solo shot of Richard. "Having a picture of someone accused of molesting boys standing with my son--it didn't seem right," Shea says.

At the altar on a recent Sunday, Flavin told the parish he'd understand if they don't contribute to the cardinal's upcoming fund drive. As an alternative, he told them to contribute to local charities directly. He's still unsure whether he should mention the crisis in every homily--"If you don't address it, are you avoiding it? If you do, are you driving them crazy?"--but on this Sunday he did. He tried to put the crisis in perspective by referring to the crises in Afghanistan and the Middle East, then he quoted Jesus: "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Have faith in God and faith in me." The parish is following that prescription as best it can.