One by one, as they poured out of Mass at Holy Cross Church in Federal Hill last night, parishioners said goodbye to their beloved pastor, the Rev. Thomas R. Malia, forced to resign for knowingly hiring a convicted sex offender as a music director.
Teary-eyed men and women who said they were drawn to Catholicism by Malia lined up in the church hallway to hug and kiss him one last time. Families who credit him with bolstering membership by attracting young people moving into the neighborhood said, "Thank you." Longtime parishioners who have seen historic renovations under his watch said simply, "You will be missed."
What many did not tell Malia, who had been pastor of Holy Cross Church and St. Mary Star of the Sea in South Baltimore for the past three years, was how angry they are with the archdiocese's decision. They did not speak of how they believe he is a casualty of the sex-abuse scandal that has engulfed the Roman Catholic Church.
Parishioners said they will meet at Holy Cross at 7 tonight to brainstorm strategies to keep him at the church.
"The archdiocese is using Father Thomas as a scapegoat. He has not put anyone at risk," said parishioner Lisa Messenger, 22. "He's caring, compassionate, a true man of God. I'm just devastated."
Malia was asked to resign last week by church officials after they learned Malia hired Robert Gee in 1999 as interim music director of Holy Cross, knowing that Gee had been convicted two years earlier of child sexual abuse.
"In my attempt to help Mr. Gee, I hired him ... on an interim basis with full knowledge of his convictions and without permission from the Archdiocese of Baltimore," Malia told about 100 parishioners during his final Mass last night. "After discussion with the archdiocese, I am tendering my resignation as pastor of Holy Cross and St. Mary Star of the Sea effectively immediately.
"In light of my decision before you, I apologize to you for the risk in which I placed you. I accept responsibility for my actions and I ask you to accept my
decision to resign," he said.
The Rev. Tom Siebert, who said he has known Malia since 1975, said he, Malia and Gee attended St. Francis Seminary in Milwaukee and "anybody that knows [Malia] knows he would never put anybody in jeopardy." Parishioners said that Gee worked with the adult choir and did not oversee youth in his position.
Gee, who taught drama and religion at Mount St. Joseph High School, pleaded guilty in October 1997 to sexual abuse and received a three-year suspended sentence and three years' probation after admitting to a three-month sexual relationship with a 17-year-old student.
Malia "made a mistake, but we should be the ones to decide," said newlywed Anne McFaul, 31, of Locust Point, who was married to her husband, Marc, by Malia in November. "It's just not right. We don't believe we were in any jeopardy."
In his final words last night, Malia said he did not know who would replace him or where he would serve in his next assignment.
"Please remember me in your prayers," he said. "And I will remember you in mine. Thank you all."
He then left the church to thunderous applause.