'I'm A Church Man'

In the back of St. Ann's Catholic Church in West Bridgewater, Mass., there's a bulletin board covered with yellow Post-Its. It's the parish Prayer Wall. Most of the supplicants seek God's help for relatives who are sick. But scattered among the postings are prayers for their priest, who's been facing a unique peril. "For Father's return and the clearing of his name," says one. "For Father McDonagh to come back soon," reads another in a child's penmanship. The missives are for Father Edward C. McDonagh, 65, the parish priest until last May 24, when he was placed on leave by the Boston Archdiocese for allegedly raping a teenage boy 39 years ago. Last month the parish's prayers were answered. Father McDonagh is back, giving homilies about lepers and possessing a newfound perspective on what it's like to be shunned by society.

It's been 14 months since the scandal over the Roman Catholic Church's handling of priest sexual abuse broke in Boston and rippled across the country. Nationwide, more than 300 priests have been removed over abuse allegations. Most will eventually face charges before a church tribunal and never minister again; some will go to jail. But a handful--as many as two dozen nationally, experts guess--will return to their posts after investigators conclude the allegations are unsubstantiated. Last month McDonagh became the first parish priest in Boston to be returned to his flock. He remains pained by the months in exile, but he's intent on finding usefulness from his ordeal. "I'll use the pain of my wounds to help heal other people's wounds," he says.

The allegations against McDonagh were impossible to prove. Some time in the early 1980s a male prostitute with a history of drug problems told his sister that McDonagh had raped him in 1964, when the man was 17. The alleged victim died of AIDS in 1996; his sister's recollection was the only evidence against the priest, and no other accusers came forward. McDonagh did work in the family's parish in 1964, but says he doesn't remember the family and denies the al-legation. While church officials investigated, McDonagh was forced out of the rectory and into an apartment. He couldn't visit his parish, wear his collar or say mass. "They tore his heart out," says Elizabeth Williams, the church organist. "He was crying and crying, banging on the coffee table, 'I didn't do that! I wouldn't do that!' " McDonagh prayed, read and reread "The Gift of Peace," Cardinal Joseph Bernardin's account of being wrongfully accused of sex abuse, and watched the History Channel and "Law & Order" reruns. McDonagh called archdiocese investigators twice a week to ask what was taking so long, but he received little information. Unsure of his future, he looked into getting a job at a local supermarket. "I was saying, 'How am I going to take care of myself?' " he says.

The length of the McDonagh investigation--as well as other priests' experiences--suggest that the church, excoriated for mishandling abuse allegations in the past, is proceeding with extreme caution before putting any accused priests back into parishes. Last July Father Ronald Bourgault was accused of abusing an altar boy in a suburban Boston parish in the 1960s. For eight months, Bourgault learned little about the charges against him. But two weeks ago Bourgault's attorney, Thomas Fay, finally heard the full story from the victim's attorney. Afterward Fay went to a local library and spent 80 cents photocopying a church directory to compile a list of the dates various priests had served in that parish. Upon seeing the list, the victim realized his recollection of abuse didn't jibe with Bourgault's tenure in the parish. He'd identified the wrong man. Bourgault returned to his post last week. An experienced detective might have uncovered the mistake in an afternoon, but Fay says church investigators lack those street smarts. The archdiocese attributes the slow work to the large number of complaints.

Standing a few feet from the altar between masses last week, McDonagh confessed no ill will toward church officials. "I'm a church man," he says. Throughout the process, "I knew what the truth was. I slept well." Having spent nine months attending mass incognito at another parish, he has new empathy for the folks in the pews. From now on, he says, "I'll be very kind and not talk too long." As he speaks, the organ starts up and the noon mass grows near. The priest looks nervously at his watch. The pews are filling. It's time for Father McDonagh to get back to work.