NARRAGANSETT — After days of protests, the Diocese of Providence has rescinded the controversial assignment of a priest who had been on leave for making inappropriate comments to children at two Catholic schools during confession.
The Rev. Eric Silva was going to be the new assistant pastor at St. Thomas More Church in Narragansett starting Aug. 15. Silva had been on leave since February, after a principal at Immaculate Conception Catholic Regional School in Cranston barred him when parents complained he’d asked students about their sexual orientation and sexual activity. The diocese later said that there were complaints from St. Luke School in Barrington as well, and that Silva’s questions had been in the “context of the Sacrament of Penance.”
Silva had already begun serving at St. Veronica Catholic Chapel in Narragansett last month, introducing himself at a Mass on July 31 and speaking about starting his religious life at St. Mark in Cranston. And Bishop Thomas J. Tobin this week said he thought it was time for Silva to get back to work.
But the sudden revelation on Monday about Silva’s assignment and past trouble — and Tobin’s refusal to answer questions about how the situation was handled — led to backlash in Narragansett.
Ryan Brophy, a father and survivor of childhood sexual abuse, knew he had to act. He stopped his work at his family’s shop, Brickley’s Ice Cream, went to Staples to make a sign — “Catholic Church, Home to Child Predators World-Wide” — and began protesting on Monday outside St. Veronica.
“What is more important than protecting children? The answer to that is nothing. Right?” Brophy said, during his three-day demonstration, when motorists on busy Boston Neck Road either honked and gave him a thumbs up, or shouted obscenities at him. “The moral answer is, nothing.”
By midweek, Silva’s name was removed from the church bulletin. And on Friday, the diocese announced that Silva’s appointment as assistant pastor was rescinded.
The diocese said Tobin made the decision after written requests from Silva and the Rev. Marcel Taillon, pastor of St. Thomas More Parish.
The diocese said that Silva wrote, “It is with a heavy heart that I realize my presence there will only hurt the parish and cause division amongst the good people of God.”
Silva will retain the priestly faculties of the Diocese of Providence, but will not be receiving a new assignment at the present time, according to the announcement.
The diocese made the announcement just a half-hour before a news conference outside its doorstep that was organized by former priest Robert M. Hoatson, president of Road to Recovery Inc., a nonprofit that assists survivors of sexual abuse and their families, and Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who represents survivors of sexual abuse. They said an investigation of Silva’s actions by law enforcement should be a priority.
“To obtain the truth, Bishop Tobin has a moral responsibility to refer the actions of Fr. Eric Silva to the police for an investigation even though Bishop Tobin has rescinded the assignment of Fr. Eric Silva,” Garabedian said in a statement.
Brophy was on his way to the demonstration at the diocese Friday when a Globe reporter told him Silva’s appointment had been rescinded. He took a sharp breath.
“This is just step one,” Brophy said. “We are coming after Tobin next.”
Brophy had been planning to demonstrate outside St. Veronica on Sunday and had made T-shirts for himself and other protestors reading: “Real Fathers Protect Children.” Brophy said he had been molested by a family friend, who was a convicted child molester.
“For the first time,” Brophy said, ”I’m able to channel the anger I had toward myself [as a survivor], and I can use it in a constructive way toward the people who deserve it.”
Brophy said the news made him want to “scream with joy, but it’s too early.”
“It’s a shame that people have to go through this much effort for the Catholic Church to make the right decision,” Brophy said. “They claim to hold the moral high ground, when they don’t do anything until they are held accountable by the people.”
Ann Hagan Webb, a local psychologist who has spoken openly about being sexually abused as a child by the late Monsignor Anthony DeAngelis at Sacred Heart in West Warwick, reacted to the news that Silva’s assignment had been rescinded.
“The Catholic Church is a top-down organization, founded on blind obedience and the parishioners usually have no say,” Webb said. “And it thinks it is the bad attention of the press that did this, [while] the credit goes to Ryan Brophy and his courage to stand there all alone.”
But, Webb wondered: Where will the diocese send Silva in a couple of months?
The president of BishopAccountability.org, a Massachusetts-based group that documents global sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, had similar questions.
Terence McKiernan contended that “Bishop Tobin has ducked responsibility for this fiasco by issuing an unsigned statement that does not admit that the appointment was a mistake. Nor does he admit that it was the courage of survivor Ryan Brophy that forced Bishop Tobin to do the right thing. Instead, the onus of the decision is placed on Silva himself, as if the decision were his and not the bishop’s.”
McKiernan also called for Attorney General Peter F. Neronha to investigate the allegations against Silva, and said the priest’s faculties should be suspended pending the outcome.
“Sexual interrogation of children in confession is closely associated with sexual abuse in the Catholic church, and for this reason is not allowed. Bishop Tobin is well aware of this,” McKiernan said.
SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which supports victims of sexual abuse, had first drawn attention to Silva’s return earlier this week. On Friday, the organization applauded the decision to rescind Silva’s assignment and joined in the call for an independent investigation.
Earlier this week, the diocese said that Silva’s temporary administrative leave had “afforded him time for pastoral study and reflection,” and that he had completed all of the required education and training to allow him to return as a priest. The diocese didn’t answer questions about specific training.
But the Survivors Network said it was “simply irresponsible to ignore history, patterns, and common sense.”
“It is wrong to justify such a dangerous decision by saying that a cleric has done everything his superiors have asked, and therefore is ready to be placed back in a position of trust and responsibility,” SNAP said. “We believe that the earlier decision by church leaders would have put the lives of innocent children at risk.”