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EAST BOSTON -- New revelations that a long-time pastor at St. Lazarus Church had sexually abused several girls decades ago, rocked an otherwise quiet East Boston congregation Oct. 14.
Father Louis Toma, a Scalabrini priest who oversaw the construction of St. Lazarus Church and served as pastor from 1911 until his death in 1961, sexually abused young girls at the parish, according to Father John J. Connolly, special assistant to Cardinal O’Malley on matters related with sexual abuse.
“The archdiocese received several, independent allegations against Father Toma,” Father Connolly said.
“These people who came forward, came forward independently, without knowledge of one another,” Father Connolly said. “There was no collusion, there was no connection, other than the fact that this is a small parish in terms of geography and people knew of each other.”
“The pattern that emerged from the stories of the various people involved provided independent corroboration of the other stories,” Father Connolly emphasized.
Barbara Thorp, director of the Pastoral Support and Outreach Office of the archdiocese characterized the victims’ accounts as “consistent and reliable.”
Father Connolly said the reports of Father Toma’s molestation of children were accompanied by news that a second Scalabrini priest, Father Guido Caverzan had also abused children in the parish in the 1970s.
He added that the Scalabrini order has been informed of the reported abuse and they have expressed their desire to cooperate with the archdiocese to bring these cases to light.
St. Lazarus Church was built in the early 1900s as an offshoot of an East Boston-Revere mission staffed mostly by the Franciscan and Scalabrini religious orders ministering to the booming Italian-immigrant population in the area.
Father Toma’s ministry was widely praised at the time. The 1944 edition of “History of the Archdiocese of Boston,” states that St. Lazarus Parish “owes its present prosperity in great measure to the devoted work of Father Ludovico Toma, P.S.S.C.”
In recognition of the priest’s work with the Italian immigrants of the Orient Heights section of East Boston, Cardinal Cushing dedicated a newly-built parish center in Father Toma’s honor in 1959, two years before his death.
According to Thorp, victims complained that the inscription of Father Toma’s name on the youth parish center and a bust of the priest in the center’s yard were constant reminders of their abuse as young girls.
“For those who had been abused by Father Toma these were ongoing signs of real hurt and pain because memorials are to honor someone, and these women knew a terrible truth, that this man was not honorable,” Thorp said.
The bust was removed Oct. 13 after the archdiocese contacted the pastor and the pastoral council of the St. Joseph-St. Lazarus Parish -- the name the parish has held since a 1985 merger.
Father Connolly said archdiocesan representatives approached the pastoral council realizing that the revelations of abuse might shock older parishioners, many of whom still remember Father Toma. Even among many younger residents of the parish he was considered something of a legend.
“He really was an icon in the parish. He was the founding pastor, built the church, he was pastor for over 50 years,” Father Connolly explained. “He was still an icon to many men and women in the ‘70s and ‘80s who are still parishioners today.”
The current pastor, Father John Kilmartin, FDP, was instrumental in conveying the news to the parish council, Father Connolly said.
“It was a very intense two-hour meeting. There were a variety of reactions,” Father Connolly said.
“There were a number of people there in their 70s and early 80s who couldn’t believe Father Toma did this.”
“In the course of the meeting, they moved from disbelief to some sort of acceptance,” he said.
“By the end of that first meeting, there was a general consensus on the part of the parish council that the bust had to come down,” he said.
Thorp suggested a second meeting to give the parish council the possibility of hearing from some of the victims of Father Toma.
That meeting took place Oct 10. Some of the victims, supported by members of their families, told their stories to the members of the parish council.
After their testimony, the council agreed to remove the bust and rename the parish center as expeditiously as possible and to make it public. Three days later, the bust was removed and plans to rename the parish center are underway.
Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley sent a letter to parishioners which was read at all weekend Masses Oct. 14 and 15.
“Sexual abuse perpetrated on children leaves wounds that cut deep into the psyche and spirit. The aftermath of childhood sexual abuse often follows a person into adulthood often impacting relationships, psychological well-being and daily living,” the cardinal said.
“The healing process for survivors of abuse, family members and parishes is enabled by an acknowledgment about the facts of past abuse of children, our most heartfelt apology and our pledge to work to ensure that no child is ever hurt again.”
The cardinal also praised the “caring and compassionate response of the members of the St. Joseph-St. Lazarus Parish pastoral council,” and “the sensitive and Christian response” showed by Father Kilmartin.
Both Thorp and Father Connolly agreed with the cardinal’s commendation of parish members.
“We witnessed something quite extraordinary in this little parish community. It was probably unprecedented for survivors and parishioners to come around the table to try to come to terms with something that is painful,” Thorp said.
“I never had an experience like that since the crisis began. They couldn’t have been more responsive and caring to these women who really had so much courage to bring this forward,” she said.