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(Mary Ellen MacIntyre)
(Mary Ellen MacIntyre)

Church awaiting 'resurrection' after bishop's disgrace Add to ...

In the soaring cathedral where Raymond Lahey was consecrated Bishop of Antigonish, with paintings of the stations of the cross lining the walls, parishioners sat silently as the fallout from the Catholic church's latest sex scandal was compared to the crucifixion.

In a letter read Sunday at all of Nova Scotia's Catholic parishes, that church's top clergyman in the province offered an impassioned and at times anguished response to allegations that Rev. Lahey was caught with child pornography.

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"Enough is enough. How much more can all of us take?" pleaded Archbishop Anthony Mancini, who took over as administrator of the diocese after Father Lahey resigned his bishopric.

"We are personally going through the passion and the death which Christ experienced, but we have not yet gone beyond death to the resurrection. It is as if we are presently sealed up in a dark tomb waiting for the power of the Spirit of God to overtake us and raise us up to a new day and a new future."

But whether the faithful are willing to move to that new future remains an open question, with shock at Father Lahey's arrest giving way to anger. A number of parishioners at St. Ninian's Cathedral in Antigonish called Sunday for reforms going as high as the Vatican.

"I can't believe that a person that would go that far in the church could be so wrong," Teresa MacCormac said after one of the morning masses at the 143-year-old stone church.

"It's an institutional issue, these top men, they get their direction from Rome," she added. "The answers should have come from Rome. And it's hard for the local priests, it must be really hard on them."

Others parishioners were more blunt.

"Until the church modernizes and women are given a bit more of their place in the church and we get rid of the men's club, I think we're in trouble," said Hugh Webb.

Ironically, some of those who knew Father Lahey in his home province of Newfoundland said that he had been progressive in his own approach toward women in the church.

He spent nearly two decades on the west coast of Newfoundland, as bishop of the diocese of St. George's, before going to Antigonish in 2003.

One woman who worked in the Roman Catholic Church during that period - who agreed to speak to The Globe and Mail on condition of anonymity - has vivid and positive memories of him. She described a great lover of classical music who had a passion for gardening and could name "every plant and shrub in the province."

The woman gave Father Lahey high marks for trying to move the diocese toward inclusiveness.

"He did have Sisters working in many of the parishes up and down the coast," she said. "That certainly wasn't the norm at the time."

Father Lahey also appeared forward-looking in his eager adoption of the coming Internet age. In the early 1990s, he was known to spend hours working on his computer. Because his modem operated through his telephone line, it was almost impossible to call him.

"I was always told, if I wanted to talk to Bishop Lahey after work, I had to go knock on his door," the Newfoundland woman said. "It was the only way to reach him. There were people who would even call him 'Computer Chip' as a joke."

Given that it was his computer that would eventually lead to his arrest, she acknowledged it all "looks much different in hindsight."

In Mount Pearl, a town near St. John's, Rev. Joseph Barton began Sunday morning's service at St. Peter's parish church with the admission that "it has been a challenging and busy week."

Father Lahey's recent arrest has taken aback many Newfoundlanders and at St. Peter's, it hits particularly close to home. Father Lahey was appointed the first parish priest here, when the church opened its doors in 1982.

Father Barton began Sunday's mass the same way every mass in the province was to begin: with the reading of a letter from Martin Currie, the Archbishop of St. John's.

The letter spoke of the "shock, sadness and anger" he experienced upon hearing of Father Lahey's arrest. "We've been trying to restore people's faith after years of scandal. … If you can't trust the chief shepherd, then who can you trust?"

Speaking after the service, Father Barton said Father Lahey had been highly respected in the parish as a community leader and a great speaker. "He worked with a lot of the people here on fundraising and starting this church," he said.

"It's been hard on everyone here. It's easy at times like this for people to lash out and use it as the reason to leave the church. I try to be here to answer questions, to encourage everyone to remember that we are all the church, and there is much to still have faith in."

As the reverberations continued to rattle across the region, the long-term effect of the scandal on the faithful of St. Ninian's in Antigonish remains to be seen.

There had been rumoured plans of a boycott of the collection plate but it was not immediately known if the total was in line with the roughly $8,100 raised last weekend. There were conflicting opinions on whether attendance was down Sunday at the cathedral, with some worried the congregation might dwindle permanently.

But others said that their faith would not be tested by the alleged misdeeds of one man.

"The church is more than a bishop," Aloysius Balawyder said. "It's not the bishop that's the head of my faith. It's Christ, I adore Christ and I believe in him."

Stephanie Porter is a freelance writer for The Globe and Mail

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