Voicing anger, frustration and disappointment over the forced resignation of their pastor, more than 400 parishioners filled the pews of Holy Cross Church in Federal Hill last night to urge church officials to give the Rev. Thomas R. Malia a second chance.
The heated, nearly three-hour meeting was filled with impassioned pleas from dozens of parishioners who recounted Malia's many pastoral deeds: He restored their faith in Catholicism, he saved their marriages, he attracted young people, he renovated the historic buildings and renewed the spiritual lives of the people inside them.
"He brought the heart back into the church," Bonnie Townsend, 53, a Holy Cross parishioner since second grade, said after the meeting. "Decisions can be reversed. Why are they so adamant in saying that it's over and done with?"
"The whole basis of Christianity is to forgive people and be compassionate, and here they are slapping Father Tom in the face," chimed in parishioner Liz Godlewsky, 30.
Malia was asked to resign last week by the archdiocese after he informed officials that in 1999, he hired Robert Gee, a friend he met when he attended seminary in Milwaukee, as interim music director of Holy Cross. Malia admitted to church officials that he knew Gee had been convicted two years earlier of child sexual abuse.
Parishioners plan to rally at the Archdiocese of Baltimore's headquarters at noon tomorrow and said they want to meet with Cardinal William H. Keeler to ask for a full review of the decision.
But church officials - the Revs. J. Bruce Jarboe and Patrick Carrion, the director and assistant director of the department of clergy personnel, and Deacon Paul Weber, assistant to the urban vicar, Bishop Gordon D. Bennett - made it clear last night that the archdiocese's decision will not change.
"There is a specific prohibition against hiring convicted child sex offenders, with background checks required for employees," the church officials said in a statement after the meeting. "Personal feelings cannot override civic and ecclesial responsibilities.
"The Archdiocese and each parish have a special responsibility to protect children," the statement continued. "Any ministerial position can be used to gain access to children - including music director - and risks cannot and will not be taken with children's safety. ... This was not an innocent mistake."
Malia announced his resignation Sunday during his final Masses at Holy Cross and St. Mary Star of the Sea, the two parishes he led. Church officials said the Rev. Raymond Martin, pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel parish in Locust Point, has been appointed temporary administrator of both parishes, while maintaining his current duties.
Malia, who is on a previously scheduled Eastern Shore vacation this week, will be reassigned as an associate pastor Aug. 1, church officials said. His next assignment is unknown.
Parishioners asked whether Malia could be reassigned to Holy Cross and St. Mary Star of the Sea as an associate pastor. Church officials said they did not see that as a possibility.
"Good people doing good things can do wrong things," Jarboe told the gathering, many of whom responded with boos.
Some supporters said that if Malia must resign, so should Keeler for his decision to return the Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell to the ministry after the priest was credibly accused of molesting Dontee D. Stokes in 1993. Blackwell later admitted molesting a different youth and was placed on leave.
Others were more pragmatic.
"We're Catholic," said longtime parishioner Mary Simon, 54. "We know it's not a democracy.
"I feel sorry for Tom, I feel sorry for Mr. Gee. But they broke the rules. How many people would have been here screaming [in support] had [Gee] molested a child? They're directing their anger at the wrong people."
Kathleen Wyatt left the meeting early because, she said, it was "becoming a mob scene," but said that Malia is a victim of his own compassion.
"Unfortunately, his passion for his vocation caused him to show compassion for a person when society didn't," she said. "He made a mistake, but who's going to suffer? The parishioners here are going to suffer."