Retiring Maine deacon: Work as investigator for Catholic Church similar to police work

Posted March 03, 2013, at 6:56 p.m.
Last modified March 04, 2013, at 8:35 a.m.
Deacon John Brennan
Courtesy of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland
Deacon John Brennan
Deacon John Brennan
Courtesy of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland
Deacon John Brennan
During the Liturgy of the Eucharist, Warden Phil Richter (from left) and Bangor firefighter John Higgins were among the gift-bearers to Bishop Richard J. Malone during Sunday's Blue Mass at St. John Catholic Church in Bangor.
John Clarke Russ | BDN
During the Liturgy of the Eucharist, Warden Phil Richter (from left) and Bangor firefighter John Higgins were among the gift-bearers to Bishop Richard J. Malone during Sunday's Blue Mass at St. John Catholic Church in Bangor.

PORTLAND, Maine — John Brennan spent much of the past decade as a deacon in the Catholic Church doing what he did for 25 years as Portland police officer — investigating reports that one person had done something wrong to another.

Brennan, 65, retired Thursday as director of the Office of Professional Responsibility for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland. It was not a position he sought but it was job for which now-retired Bishop Joseph Gerry felt Brennan was immensely qualified in 2002 as the sex abuse scandal engulfed the Catholic Church. Brennan continued the job under Bishop Richard J. Malone.

Brennan, who was the first person to hold the position, investigated complaints of sexual abuse and other possible crimes by priests, former priests and other diocesan employees. It was not what he had expected to do when he was ordained in 1998 as one of the first deacons in Maine.

“It was quite similar to police work,” he said of his work as an investigator for the diocese. “Every complaint had the potential be a criminal investigation and in every case where there was any suggestion child sex abuse, I sent a letter to the local district attorney to determine if it was within statute of limitations.”

Every complaint Brennan investigated that involved a priest was well beyond the statute of limitations that applied at the time of the offense, he said.

“The way I ran office was almost a model of the way police handle internal affairs,” he said. “No one is allowed to interfere. I would give the bishop a short overview of the complaint but from the time I opened the investigation, I had complete autonomy and did not report on case to the bishop or anyone else in the chancery.”

Brennan never wore his clerical garb to interview victims. He said that at first he often was treated with suspicion.

“But when I told victims that their complaints had been substantiated, they said they couldn’t believe that the church finally believed them,” he said.

In other cases, he was able to tell priests that they had been cleared.

When each investigation was completed, Brennan said he hired a private courier company to hand-deliver his report to members of the independent review board, originally headed by former Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Daniel Wathen. That board was charged with making a recommendation to the bishop about what action, if any, should be taken.

That kind of investigative work was not what drew Brennan to the diaconate or to police work. It was the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives.

The word deacon comes from the Greek diakonos, meaning servant, according to previously published reports. The first deacons delivered what today would be considered the social ministry of the church. They cared for the widowed, orphaned and the poor.

Born and raised in Lewiston, Brennan attended the parish school at St. Patrick Catholic Church, then Lewiston High School. He spent part of each summer as a boy with an uncle who was a priest in Chipman, New Brunswick, Canada.

“I think I always was discerning a vocation,” Brennan said last week. “I always felt an attraction to the church.”

Although the diaconate was an important part of the early church, it did not take root in modern times until the implementation of Vatican II in the 1960s and ’70s. Today, deacon is one of three titles given to ordained men in the Catholic Church. The others are priest and bishop. Unlike priests and bishops, deacons may be married when ordained but may not marry after their ordinations.

They may perform some of the same duties as priests such as read the Gospel at Mass, offer prayers of the faithful and direct the worship and prayers of the people. Deacons also may baptize infants and converts and preside at weddings and funerals that do not include a Mass when a priest is not available. Like priests, deacons wear the white clerical collar and black shirt and other vestments.

“The diaconate is an excellent form of ministry,” Brennan said. “We make a different connection with people than priests do. Some people feel more comfortable talking to a married deacon if they are married. Some people see deacons as more in the real world, more in line with their experiences every day.”

Malone, now bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, N.Y., praised Brennan’s work for the Maine diocese.

“John Brennan was a paragon of professionalism and integrity during his years of service as director of the Diocesan Office for Professional Responsibility,” Malone said in an email. “His objective was always to discover the truth whenever he was called upon to look into concerns raised about church personnel. I hold him in the highest regard and thank him for his faithful service.”

Robert Gossart of Salisbury Cove, the Maine representative for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, also known as SNAP, said in an email last week that there was an inherent conflict for Brennan as an investigator and a member of the Catholic clergy.

“I assume that as a deacon, Brennan made a vow of obedience to Bishop Malone and was his employee,” Gossart said. “This may have created a conflict of interest for him, and prevented him from being an ‘independent advocate’ for the victims of sexual abuse, and from fulfilling his duties to protect children.

“For example, when admitted child molester Father John Audibert was sentenced to a ‘life of prayer and penance,’ neither Malone nor Brennan alerted Falmouth parents and school officials that Audibert was living in their town,” the SNAP spokesman continued. “The same thing happened when Father Audibert quietly moved to Scarborough. Neither Malone nor Brennan warned community members that a child molester was living in their midst.”

The Maine diocese has not made public the addresses of priests and church employees against whom credible accusation of sex abuse have been made. In April, Sue Bernard, then-spokeswoman for the diocese, said that civil officials and Audibert’s neighbors were aware of his background and where he lived.

Although some may think the Catholic Church has not done enough for victims of sexual abuse, Brennan said that “the church is a lot more transparent now than it ever was before.”

He also said that the Board of Overseers of the Bar is, with a few exceptions, made up of lawyers who decide whether other lawyers have violated their professional code of ethics.

As for the future, Brennan said he was looking forward to engaging in pastoral ministry after a vacation in Florida with his wife, Lorraine Brennan, who works as a nurse in Portland. He said that he would like to perform funerals for people who were raised Catholic but may not have been active toward the end of their lives. The idea came to him after he was asked several years ago to do a service on just a few hours notice.

“I had no vestments, but I had my funeral book,” the deacon said last week. “The woman I spoke with said the family had no faith in God but I noticed that a lot of heads were bowed.”

Michael Magalski, 52, of Kennebunk has been named to replace Brennan. A native of Cleveland, Magalski served for 30 years in the U.S. Secret Service, the past 17 in Maine.

“He has an enormously strong reputation in the Secret Service across the country,” Brennan said of his successor in the diocesan magazine Harvest. “I’m very confident that he is going to try to continue to bring fairness and justice and equity to the process.”

Magalski told Harvest that his approach to the job will not be different from his predecessor’s.

“What I’ve learned over my years as a criminal investigator is the truth comes out,” he said. “If you do a good investigation, the truth comes out.”

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