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A parish grows amid the abuse scandal

In 2002, a tight-knit parish in Hanson celebrated a new church under a cloud. After a decade of struggle, it has emerged stronger.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The Rev. John Mark Hannon works on boosting church attendance. His Hanson parish has 250 more families than in 2002.

HANSON - Their graceful new church had risen quickly from the ground, and in September 2002, after years of planning and praying, parishioners gathered to celebrate Mass in it for the first time.

It was a bright day, full of joy and hope. But a darkness had descended as the church was being built. As the service began, protesters, gathered across the street from the church’s freshly-hung front doors, shouted angrily into a bullhorn. “Cardinal Law is a disgrace!’’ they cried, their voices not quite drowned out by the ringing church bells.

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St. Joseph the Worker, a close-knit Catholic parish in a small town south of Boston, opened its new building - and with it, a new chapter - at a moment when the Catholic Church was mired in deep despair. As the parish marked a milestone, Catholics across the Archdiocese of Boston recoiled at revelations that their highest-ranking leaders had covered up sex crimes against children for decades.

The Hanson parish was spared the worst of the turbulence. It was not convulsed by a priest’s removal, or placed on a list for closure. Ten years later, it is in many ways the same place. Its growth continues; its airy, well-lit sanctuary still looks new. The same tall, good-natured pastor stands upfront on Sunday mornings.

Still, like the protesters’ shouts on opening day, the echoes of the crisis could not be ignored. Like hundreds of other parishes on the periphery, St. Joseph the Worker felt the ripples: when a few families stopped coming to Mass, and others wrestled with anger at the archdiocese for allowing the scandal or the media for covering it so exhaustively; when a priest who served there in the 1980s was accused, the allegation dating back before his time in Hanson.

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Some parishioners say they became more likely to question authority, or more vocal in defending their faith. Some were stung by unexpected discoveries: an acquaintance in another city who had been abused; a priest from a childhood parish who had been accused.

“It was a lot of turmoil, and we were all part of it,’’ said Peter Muise, a banker and the chairman of the parish finance council. “The building is a testament not just to healing, but to the power of people dedicated to their parish.’’

‘The thing that turned everyone else off - in a way, that’s what brought me to it.’

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For many Catholics, the abuse crisis remains a raw nerve. It drove some from their faith temporarily, others for good. Yet at the Hanson parish, most never thought of leaving. Whether they were angry or heartsick or confused, they, like countless other Catholics, knew that they would stay.

The heaviest burden seemed to fall on their pastor of 16 years, the Rev. John Mark Hannon, known affectionately here as Father Mark. Simple tasks he had always enjoyed, like dedicating the town’s Little League season every spring, were suddenly laced with complexity, as doubt crept into the public view of priests.

As the full scope of the scandal unfolded, parishioners made their pastor a plaque, reminding him of all the reasons why they loved him.

“We worried about him,’’ said Marilyn Shaw, a sixth-grade history teacher who raised two children in the parish. “We saw how deeply he felt it, that sense of shame associated with his collar, when he had always been so proud of it.’’

‘We were all hurt’

At 9:15 a.m. on a late-January Sunday, the second of the day’s four Masses is beginning. Hannon presides in green robes, a towering, genial presence before an altar still decked out with red and white poinsettias. Oak pews fan out before him in two directions, and the house is almost full under the soaring cedar ceiling.

For years, St. Joseph the Worker parishioners prayed elbow-to-elbow - or perched on folding chairs if they showed up late. The old mission church, built in 1939 to serve this pine-shaded, pond-dotted, onetime summer retreat, seated about 300. The spacious new church has room for twice as many.

At this hour, much of the crowd is young families, who have driven modest but steady parish growth for more than a decade. This Mass is designed for them, with prayers and a homily especially tailored for children. The atmosphere is chaotic at times but tolerant, as parents carry restless toddlers in and out.

The pastor calls the children up to sit on the floor at the front. He switches on a flashlight and wraps the bulb in cloth. “Every time you obey your parents, the light shines brighter,’’ he tells them. He asks for examples of obedience - making their beds; feeding the cat - and with each he pulls a layer off.

The mood is light. Hannon gets a laugh when the flashlight accidentally goes out. Then he shifts focus and speaks to the adults. He reminds them of their role as evangelists - a current archdiocesan push - and the need to bring more Catholics back to Mass.

With that, he invokes the painful recent past.

“I would like the message to go out: Don’t let the sins of other people keep us away from Mass,’’ he says. “You know what I’m talking about - I’m talking about abuse.’’

For some Catholics, the revelations of a decade ago were too much. As at other parishes, some members left St. Joe’s. The subject remains sensitive - those who stayed are hesitant to speak of those who left; some who left did not return phone calls from a reporter. One woman, a lifelong Catholic when she left the parish 10 years ago, spoke on the condition of anonymity, calling her decision “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.’’

“I left for a number of reasons, but the crisis was the final straw,’’ said the woman, now 68 and a member of a nondenominational Christian church. “I felt that I had been lied to, and I couldn’t trust the church. . . . I just knew in my heart and soul that I had to go.’’

But the crisis was just one aspect of dwindling Mass attendance: long before it made headlines, turnout was already plummeting. Forty years ago, 70 percent of Boston area Catholics went to Mass regularly; today, 16 percent do, according to the archdiocese.

The Hanson parish has 250 more registered families than it did a decade ago, and enrollment in its religious education classes has grown to more than 1,000, but it faces the same dilemma. Half the parents who ferry their children to class each week don’t return for Mass, laments Hannon, who often makes the rounds of classrooms reminding students that they need to come to church.

Hannon grew up in Watertown, the youngest of six children. A passionate sports fan in his collar and New England Patriots cap, he seems much younger than 77 as he roves between the church and the white-clapboard rectory next door, home to the parish office and his living quarters. Parishioners note his frugality (shaking their heads at the faded pink rectory carpet) and marvel at his financial discipline: Less than 10 years after the $3 million church building was finished, less than $200,000 remains to be paid for.

His skills ministering to the sick are even more revered. Marilyn Shaw vividly recalls the pastor’s visit to her dying mother in 1999, when he locked eyes with the bedridden 84-year-old and a current seemed to run between them.

“He spoke to her in that booming voice of his, and said, ‘Edna! I know what you’re up to, you’re getting ready to meet the Lord!’’’ Shaw says. “She hadn’t spoken in hours, but she looked up at him and said, ‘You bet your boots I am!’ ’’

Hannon speaks of the priesthood as a gift. His parish can appear a place out of time - churchgoers leave freshly-laid eggs in the rectory refrigerator - but there are vexing challenges, like how to bring inactive Catholics back. He favors a simple pitch, made at weddings, funerals, or a packed church on Ash Wednesday: “Please come home - I love seeing you.’’

Sitting in his big blue recliner one evening, Hannon recalled the opening of the new church in 2002 and the protest sparked by Cardinal Bernard Law’s visit. When the pastor crossed the street that day and asked the protesters to be respectful, one man backed away from him, warning, “Don’t come near me.’’

When sex abuse allegations at Penn State were revealed last year - when any story of abuse opens up the wound - the pain of the church crisis flood back in, he said.

“We were all hurt, and we can never, never apologize enough to the victims,’’ said Hannon. “I hear people say that it’s time to move on, and I feel it too, but . . . if I had a child abused by a priest, I’m not sure I would move on.’’

Joining a church in crisis

When Dana Shaw thinks back to 10 years ago, it is not the crisis or the new church building that comes to mind first. He thinks of his faith - for it was then that the outgoing carpenter, a former Protestant, decided to join the Catholic Church - at the height of the scandal, as many Catholics fled.

Shaw had made a pact with his wife, Marilyn, a Catholic, when they married: She would raise their children in the church, but she would not pressure him to join. The arrangement worked over the years, but there were times Shaw found himself thinking hard about his choice.

He witnessed the scene at his mother-in-law’s deathbed, when she spoke her final words to Rev. Hannon. Then on Christmas Eve 2001, when he was 50, Shaw made one of his infrequent trips to church with his family. He was sitting alone in a back pew, watching his wife and children play roles in the Mass, when he had a potent realization.

“That’s when it hit me, that I was as far away from them as I could be,’’ says Shaw, now 60, a onetime hippie who tells of sneaking off in his youth to attend Woodstock.

Two weeks after his Christmas epiphany, in January 2002, news reports first implicated archdiocesan leaders in the coverup of clergy sex abuse. A storm of controversy followed, but Shaw never faltered. He enrolled in religious classes, beginning a period of self-examination that left him calmer and less materialistic.

It changed him in other ways as well. His mother had died in her 40s, a slow, excruciating decline from a rare genetic disorder, spinocerebellar ataxia. With a 50 percent chance of inheriting the disease, Shaw always knew what he would do if he got sick: take his sailboat out and slip over the side, ending his life.

With his immersion in the church, he abandoned that plan.

“If God needs me to suffer,’’ he says, “bring it on.’’

In a single ceremony at St. Joe’s in 2004 - Shaw calls it a “sacramental grand slam’’ - he was baptized and confirmed, made his First Communion, and was married in the Catholic Church. His son Warren, then 13, served as his best man; his daughter Kate, then 16, was maid of honor.

“I knew the church had problems, but that had nothing to do with me wanting to be part of it,’’ Shaw says. “I don’t think the Catholic Church is different from any other church - the church is part of society.’’

Unlikely as his timing seems, Shaw was not alone. And if he joined the church in spite of the turmoil around it, Carol Sabadini came, in part, because of it.

She, too, had been raised a Protestant. A straight-A student with a skeptical, scientific mind, she became a nurse, got married, had children, and worked 60-hour weeks. She felt driven, she says, by the need “to save someone.’’

She says she didn’t know until it was too late that someone in her family had been sexually abused. Years later, still coping with her guilt, she heard about the crisis in the Catholic Church, and found herself identifying with church leaders. She imagined they might feel the way she did: wondering how they ended up in such a mess; struggling to figure out what they should do about it.

“The thing that turned everyone else off - in a way, that’s what brought me to it,’’ says Sabadini, 67, who joined the church three years ago. “At some point in your life, you realize you’re never going to know everything. Once you know that, you can be open to all the mystery of Catholicism.’’

One Friday afternoon this winter, Sabadini sat alone in the sanctuary, keeping a vigil as part of the church’s adoration ceremony. She said her mind wandered in the stillness, back to childhood, and the sun porch where she used to sit and watch hornets hatching.

Sabadini, who, with Dana Shaw, helps lead weekly classes for new Catholics at the parish, says she is happier than she has been in years.

She remains estranged from some relatives, damage wrought by the painful family crisis, but since joining the church, she views the distance between them differently.

“They may never come back to me, but I don’t see it as punishment, and that’s new,’’ she said. “I see it as God has other plans for them.’’

Young churchgoers

As twilight deepens on a February evening, the cross on the church roof catches the last light, gleaming white against the darkening blue sky. Suddenly, the parish comes alive.

Cars crowd the parking lot, brake lights glowing red, as parents drop off children for their Monday night religious education class. Inside the old church building, 85 sixth-graders, many in identical black North Face jackets, crowd into rows of folding chairs. Lit candles flicker on the former altar as religious education director Robin Muise quizzes the youngsters on the seven sacraments, tossing packages of Smarties to those who give right answers.

“Why do we thank Jesus?’’ she asks. Hands wave in the air.

“For being alive?’’ ventures one preteen.

“Because he gave his life for us,’’ Muise says.

The middle schoolers settle in for 90 minutes weekly. They learn about saints, and the meaning of Communion, and, on this night, how to stand up to a bully.

Now 11 and 12, these students were barely toddlers a decade ago. When a teacher referred to the “crisis’’ at a retreat for ninth-graders recently, most had no idea what she meant. Around them, though, are subtle signs of change within their lifetimes. A poster on the wall lists the “Safety Steps’’ they have been taught to follow if someone makes them uncomfortable: say no; get away; tell a grown-up.

They are at an age when they may start to drift away from Mass, and their teachers mount a vigilant resistance. Upstairs in the former choir loft, where the preteens like to slouch in comfy, well-used armchairs, teacher Barbara Devine describes the grace that comes from taking Communion as “a little jolt, like vitamin C, that gives you the oomph to do the right thing.’’

“You can get it daily, if you want,’’ she tells them.

There are plenty of reasons for the teachers to feel daunted. While 31 percent of Americans were raised as Catholics, only 24 percent identify as Catholics now, according to a Pew study. There are fewer parishes and priests, and more upheaval lies ahead: a proposed reorganization now under discussion would team pastors up to serve new clusters of parishes.

But as the sixth-graders squirm and whisper in their chairs, Kate Shaw, 24, steps into the hush of the new St. Joe’s next door. Her work schedule as an emergency room nurse kept her from going to Mass with her parents, Dana and Marilyn, the day before. So the young woman heads to church alone this Monday evening, joining about a dozen others in the pews.

Shaw was 14 when the scandal swept the Catholic Church. She remembers it as “a reality check; a realization that everybody’s human.’’ Hard as it was to hear that holy men let evil happen, it was not those men who she was worshiping, she says.

Maybe, she thinks now, looking back, that time was a crucible, that tested every Catholic.

“People who went to church out of habit, they might have said after it happened, ‘If I’m going to stay with this, I need to dig deeper,’ ’’ she says. “Maybe in some way it was almost a renewal, because you had to ask yourself, why am I going to stay.’’

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.
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