One Parish Accepting, a Second Agitated

April 18, 2002

By JACOB H. FRIES

New York Times


The block around St. Kevin Church in Flushing had the look
of an idyllic neighborhood yesterday afternoon, with
chattering birds and a Mister Softee ice cream truck idling
at the corner as parents gathered under shady trees to pick
up their children from school.

They arrived in minivans or pushing strollers, and quietly
chatted in groups of two and three. They waited anxiously
to spot their children and escort them away. Most shrugged
off questions about the sexual abuse accusations against
their pastor, the Rev. James T. Smith, 71. One, without
being asked, shouted, "Everything's fine."

The parishioners at the Queens church have had more than a
week to absorb the news. "It happens," one man said. Like
most of the others there, he declined to give his name. He
said he, his wife and their five children had known Father
Smith and attended the school.

The man had come to fetch his youngest son home for lunch.
"Three of my four older kids were part of the altar
service. Next year, he might, too," he said, pointing to
his son, "and I wouldn't think twice about it. The tragedy
has not affected my house."

A more agitated scene played out some 20 miles away, in a
tight-knit neighborhood in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, which was
reeling yesterday amid fresh accusations against another
priest held in high regard. On Tuesday, the Rev. James
Collins, 57, was put on administrative leave from Bishop
Kearney High School, a girls' school.

His suspension, which followed allegations that he molested
boys while serving in a Queens parish before coming to the
school in 1984, was first reported yesterday by The Daily
News. Encountering a group of reporters outside the school,
students appeared shocked as they described a man they
often confided in and whose advice they valued highly.
Members of the softball team, which Father Collins coached,
shouted, "He's the greatest in the world," as they strode
to a game. Many students said they spent the day in
counseling.

Debbie LaSelva, 43, a teacher's aide, said Father Collins
had comforted her when her cousin was killed Sept. 11. "He
was there for everyone - the kids, the faculty, everyone,"
she said. "That's all I know about him. I don't know the
other side. The allegations."

The principal read one of Father Collins's letters over
closed-circuit television, students said.

"He said, `I'm going to be O.K. I miss you. What's going on
are just allegations. Pray for me. Don't think anything
different about me,' " said Idaliana Guadalupe, 19, a
senior. "Hearing his words, it touched me. We were all
crying. I was crying myself. He's a good man."

In Flushing, the reaction of St. Kevin parishioners to the
suspension of Father Smith seemed to have been dulled by
the national months-old sex scandal that has engulfed the
Roman Catholic Church.

What can you say about someone who has led your parish
dutifully since 1989? "I think we've all been reminded that
you can't judge a book by its cover," said a woman, who for
the past 22 years has been a crossing guard at the St.
Kevin school.

"I'm very upset," she said. "I think everyone is very
upset. That's all I want to say."

A moment later, though, the woman added: "The newspaper has
more about this than we're told here." Yesterday, a Newsday
article reported that Michael Dowd, a lawyer for some of
Father Smith's accusers, said the pastor had a second home
in Amityville, N.Y., where he molested children in the
1970's and earlier.

In a letter read during Mass on April 6 and 7, Bishop
Thomas V. Daily said Father Smith had denied the abuse
allegations, which were made recently and involved
"inappropriate sexual contact" with three minors at other
parishes more than 20 years ago. The bishop said Father
Smith was being treated for depression.

"This does not negate all of the good and dedicated
priestly service that Father Smith has offered in our
diocese," the bishop said in his letter.

Jennifer Lodico, 29, lives behind St. Kevin Church and said
she had had a few run-ins over the years with Father Smith,
who complained about her husband's noisy cars. Ms. Lodico
said she was raised in the church, but had gone her own
way. "I trust God," she said, adding that she teaches her
five children at home. "I find truth in the Bible. But
these people put their faith in an institution, and when it
topples, they have nothing."

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