Sad parishioners recall Cox's kindness

`Pretty spiritual guy,' `was very well liked,' church members say

May 24, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin and Athima Chansanchai | Jennifer McMenamin and Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Longtime parishioners from St. John Catholic Church in Westminster reacted with dismay yesterday to news that their former priest has been charged with molesting a young boy two decades ago.

The Rev. Brian M. Cox, 63, was released early yesterday on $50,000 bail after being taken into custody Wednesday night at a house near Resurrection Farm, a ministry to homeless people and families that he operates in Silver Run near the Pennsylvania line.

"I can only tell you I love the man. He was very well liked," said Tony D'Eugenio, owner of Giulianova Italian Deli on Westminster's East Main Street and a church member since 1977. "To see him being led out in handcuffs tore out my heart."

Roy L. Chiavacci, a Westminster councilman whose family has attended St. John's for 25 years, said he was shocked. "I always had a lot of respect for what he did as a priest and I just thought he was a pretty spiritual guy," Chiavacci said.

The priest presided at the wedding of Chiavacci's son. "That's how much we thought of him," the councilman said.

Cox served as associate pastor of St. John's from 1978 until 1989, when he left on a yearlong sabbatical. He served about two years at St. Aloysius in Littlestown, Pa., before working full time at the farm.

Cox was suspended from his priestly duties in 1995 after a similar allegation was made involving another youth. He was not charged in that case. Yesterday, the former deputy state's attorney who had handled the matter said the archdiocese refused to reveal the priest's whereabouts, preventing investigators from interviewing him.

Marcie S. Wogan, who is no longer with the prosecutor's office, said that after Cox was sent to an out-of-state facility for treatment in August 1995, church officials would not disclose where he was being treated or for what.

David W. Kinkopf, an attorney representing the archdiocese, noted Cox had his own attorney at the time who might have blocked access to his client. "Our records don't reflect a request from the state's attorney on ... Cox's location, but it certainly would have been and is our policy to provide that kind of information upon request," he said.

Many parishioners said the new allegations, made by a 33-year-old man who said he had been sexually abused years ago while swimming with Cox, do not fit with the man they knew.

Current and former parishioners of St. John's described Cox as deeply involved in his community, a charismatic priest and extemporaneous preacher who used unconventional methods to involve his congregation in the Gospel.

He turned Bible stories into lessons for everyday life. He once helped an unwed pregnant woman - even attending Lamaze class with her and the delivery room birth - and preached about the experience.

He celebrated sunrise Mass on Easter with balloons tied to each pew. He walked newly baptized babies around the church to be applauded. And on more than one occasion, Cox ended Mass by dancing down the aisle or by playing a kazoo.

"It was on Easter and in great celebration of Jesus rising from the dead, he danced right out of there with that kazoo. You just kind of stood there looking at him with your mouth open, but that was Father Brian," recalled Carol Bolesta, 61. "I think he truly was a holy priest, and he tried to make the Mass interesting."

Cox frequently ate dinner at the homes of his parishioners, even after they had moved away. He attended funerals of church members and their relatives, often traveling to Baltimore to comfort grieving relatives.

Inside the Giulianova Italian Deli, D'Eugenio pulled from atop a refrigerator case a big coffee can filled with money.

"I've collected for Brian Cox and Resurrection Farm for 12 to 13 years," the deli owner said. "He does a lot of good. He takes in families that lose their homes. Kids that make a bad turn, he puts them to work on the farm."

At the 180-acre farm, Cox offered shelter to battered women, migrants, AIDS patients and to anyone who needed a temporary home. Sixteen people can live there at a time.

Yesterday, police searched the farm, which includes a barn, a grain tower, a house, a chicken coop and what appeared to be a prayer center. Men on the house's porch said Cox was not there and declined to comment.

Sun staff writers Childs Walker and John Rivera contributed to this article.

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