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Parish defends late priest accused of abuse

St. Brendan’s holds a service for Lane

In an extraordinary outpouring of support for a priest accused of sexual abuse, hundreds gathered at St. Brendan’s Parish in Dorchester Thursday evening to attend a Mass for the Rev. James H. Lane, the parish’s beloved longtime pastor.

It was a quiet, intensely felt service until the end, when one of Lane’s oldest and closest friends, Harry Uhlman, rose to speak.

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“I don’t care what anybody says,’’ he said. “Father Lane never abused a child.’’

People in the packed church shot to their feet, and crashing applause filled the sanctuary for more than a minute.

The archdiocese acknowledged last week that it had paid a settlement of an undisclosed amount to a New Hampshire man who said he was molested by Lane as a boy in the mid-1960s and early 1970s.

Lane, who was also the chaplain of the Boston Police Department for more than 30 years, died in 2007. The archdiocese said in a statement last week that it could not fully substantiate the claim against Lane, and the settlement amount reflected that.

Until now, Lane’s only known role in the clergy sexual abuse crisis was as whistle-blower: In 1984, he warned the chancery about the Rev. John J. Geoghan, then a priest at St. Brendan’s, who was later discovered to be one of the worst serial child molesters in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States.

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Thursday evening’s Mass, for the repose of Lane’s soul, was said by the parish’s current pastor, the Rev. John J. Connolly Jr., who until last year was Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley’s top adviser on sexual abuse. He said in an interview that he did not review the Lane case in that role.

At Thursday’s service, Connolly cautioned parishioners to express their feelings about Lane’s case in a way that would not alienate victims of sexual abuse. Three Boston priests who served at St. Brendan’s appear on the archdiocese’s list of priests accused of abuse.

In a poignant letter to the congregation distributed over the weekend and posted on the parish website, Connolly spoke of his astonishment and sadness about the accusation.

“I do not believe Father Lane to be the kind of man who would engage in such predatory and destructive behavior against a child,’’ he wrote. “At this point in time, given what I know personally about Father Lane, I do not find this allegation to be credible.’’

But, Connolly wrote, in many other cases over the years, allegations that did not initially seem credible to him proved true.

“I am most certainly not suggesting that such is the case in this instance,’’ he said. “I am simply acknowledging the lesson I learned, that I do not know what I do not know.’’

Mitchell Garabedian, the Boston lawyer who represented Lane’s accuser, said in an interview Thursday afternoon that the church settled the claim because it found his client credible.

“Respectfully, the church has the right to hold a Mass, and the parishioners have a right to attend that Mass,’’ he said. “The evidence indicating Father Lane sexually molested my client was overwhelming.’’

But many in the congregation at St. Brendan’s said they were certain of Lane’s innocence.

“There is no doubt in my mind,’’ said Mike Fleming, 63, of Milton. He was among the first altar boys Lane oversaw at St. Paul’s Parish in Dorchester, where Lane served from 1962 to 1969, and where, Garabedian said, he met the alleged victim.

Fleming recalled Lane as a young priest who oversaw the vast array of children’s activities in parish life. Even after Fleming’s family moved away, Fleming maintained a lifelong friendship with the priest.

“One allegation versus 50 years of good deeds,’’ Fleming said. “It’s like, you can’t let this thing lie.’’

Lane moved in 1969 to St. Brendan’s, where he served as pastor from 1982 to 1996.

“We can’t believe it, we just can’t,’’ said Brian McLaughlin of Dorchester, a member of St. Brendan’s. “He’s married family, buried family, christened family - he’s done it all.’’

“He’s been with us through thick and thin - through the tragedies, through the joyous part of our family lives, he’s always there,’’ said McLaughlin’s wife, Debby. “Whether it’s 2, 3, 4 o’clock in the morning. And what he would say to you is, ‘It’s my pleasure.’ ’’

Mary Ellen Geary once taught in the parish school.

“Every year when I signed my contract he would say, ‘I wish I had more to give you,’ ’’ she said.

As of Thursday night, 267 people had joined a Facebook group in support of Lane started by John K. O’Toole, a parishioner who ran unsuccessfully for City Council last fall. O’Toole called Lane “truly a great example of what a parish priest could be.’’

“He made us all better people,’’ one woman wrote in a post on the group’s wall. “Nobody can take that gift away. Always and forever on your side, Father.’’

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.

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