Nancy Ross remembers hearing about priests abusing minors and thinking “Throw the book at them!”
Then the abuse scandal visited her church, and her pastor. The retired school teacher is now left to reconcile an act she abhors with a priest she admired.
Like a lot of people in this working-class town near the Adirondacks, she has a jumble of feelings following the removal of the Rev. James Rosch. There is anger and sadness, but also a strain of compassion for the priest people still call Father Jim.
“It’s so complicated right now,” she said. “I think everybody feels the same way, we’re just so frustrated.”
Rosch was the pastor for six years at St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic church, a stately brick building set by the shop fronts along Broadway. Rosch, 55, was known for well-crafted sermons and telling jokes after Mass. He was approachable, and credited with keeping younger parishioners in the fold.
“If you talk to 100 people, 90 would have nothing but good things to say about him, and the other 10 would be misinformed,” said Timothy Smith, owner of the Fort Edward Pharmacy.
Then on June 28, the Albany Diocese announced that Rosch was among six priests removed from the ministry for “substantiated incidents of sexual abuse of minors.” St. Joseph’s parishioners were hit with a double whammy because the previous pastor also was among the six priests.
The action came after the U.S. bishops’ historic meeting in Dallas, where they adopted a new policy requiring clergy who had molested children to be barred from all church work. At least 50 priests nationwide have been removed or resigned under the new plan. That’s in addition to at least 250 priests taken off duty since the abuse crisis erupted in January.
The weekend Rosch was taken off duty, Albany Bishop Howard Hubbard replaced him on the pulpit and told parishioners: “These are indeed dark days for the church, and your parish in particular.”
The blow seemed especially big because the community is so small.
Fort Edward sits on a stretch of the Hudson River narrow enough to hit a baseball across. In a town with fewer than 6,000 people, Rosch played a notable role not only in the church, but in the larger community. He worked on fund drives for food pantries and performed John Denver songs with his guitar at concerts at the yacht basin.
Some parishioners said they were particularly upset over learning about the removal from TV news or the newspaper, instead of directly from church officials. And the church gave few details. Residents were told the abuse happened decades ago with no reoccurrence, but they still have questions. What did Rosch do? How old was the victim? What gender?
The Rev. Kenneth Doyle, a spokesman for the diocese, said he did not know where Rosch was living or how to contact him for an interview.
Ross, drawing on her experience as a teacher, agrees with the church’s removal of Rosch. But other people aren’t sure, given what little they know.
Local resident Bob Perry said the arguments usually consist of one person saying it happened so long ago, and the other asking: What if it were your child?
Some residents are struggling with their own mixed emotions.
“If he did what people say he did, that’s wrong,” Smith said. Yet minutes later he adds: “I have a lot of respect for Father Jim. Something that he did so many years ago does not change that.”
Parishioner Lynn Ives said Rosch will always be Father Jim to her. She disapproves of abuse, of course, but hasn’t made up her mind on whether she agrees with his removal.
While Ives worries the scandal will corrode the trust younger people place in the church, she was among several parishioners who said the foibles of priests will not shake their faith.
“If you have your faith, your faith will stay with you, you know?” Ross said. “And I think our faith will help keep us together and help us down the road. It may make us stronger.”
Hubbard has already named a new pastor for St. Joseph’s, although Rosch’s name was still on the announcement board out in front of the church, right by the request to “Keep in touch.”