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Gangs' priest caught in melee: parish demands Jesuits return Boyle.

LOS ANGELES - When Father Gregory Boyle bade a tearful farewell to his Dolores Mission Parish in East Los Angeles last July, it was generally understood to mean hasta luego, not adios. Now it appears that internal Jesuit politics resentment over Boyle's concentration on the gang problem and possible opposition by Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Los Angeles archdiocese will prevent the return of this priest, nationally recognized for his successful work with gang members.

When "G-Dog," as Boyle is affectionately known to the homeboys, departed the Pico-Aliso Housing Project, he left to begin a mandatory yearlong tertianship - a retreat that all Jesuits must complete before taking final vows. Boyle also left, he says, with an agreement, in principle, to return to his Boyle Heights parish in July so he could continue his six-year ministry to gangs.

In early January, however, Boyle was informed by his California provincial, Father Paul Belcher, that he would not be permitted to return to Dolores Mission. The news devastated Boyle. "I feel heartbroken," he told NCR in a phone interview. "I'm absolutely certain that God has called me to do this work. I was told I could come back here, and now that looks like it won't happen." Boyle said he would go "wherever he was ordered." He was speaking from Folson State Prison in northern California, where he is temporary chaplain. He also is temporary chaplain at the Mexican maximum-security prison on the island of Isla Maria.

The news that Boyle was not coming back rocked his former parish, where relations among the gangs have deteriorated and shootings have skyrocketed since he left. "We've been in a crisis situation since he left," says Pam McDuffie, 40, a Pico-Aliso resident and Volunteers In Service To America volunteer for the Los Angeles Housing Authority. "|G is special. He loves these kids and can calm them down. We need him back to make peace."

Although Boyle had some well-publicized tensions with some Los Angeles Police Department officials, other law-enforcement representatives were quick to lobby for his return. "He is the right man for the right job at the right time," says Lt. Walter McKinney of the Housing Authority Police.

"He's a moral force down here," said Mary Ridgway, a veteran Los Angeles County gang-probation officer. "Greg knows the shot-callers and how to deal with them. This decision makes no sense. It will take someone else six years to get where he is now. That's like reinventing the wheel, and you're gonna lose a lot of kids in the meantime."

Inside the Pico-Aliso Housing Project, activists organized a campaign to reverse the Jesuit's decision. A petition for his return was circulated and signed by more than 700 residents. A videotaped plea from members of the eight project gangs was forwarded to the provincial's office. In a telephone conference call to Belcher, members of the Comite Pro Paz - a gang-intervention project at the Dolores Mission Parish - secured a promise that the provincial was to have met with them in February.

Belcher said in January that Boyle had finished his assignment at Dolores Mission and would be moved, but he also left the door open to a reversal, saying, "The decision of where Greg will go next is not final." As far as the Jesuits are concerned, however, that door appeared to slam shut the night of Feb. 21. That was when, after listening to several hours of pleas from public officials, law-enforcement representatives, local residents, parents and gang members, Belcher announced to several hundred parishioners gathered in the mission that his decision was final. He also refused to explain or elaborate on his reasons, saying, "That is something I don't feel I wish to do."

Reaction from the crowd was immediate. I feel like you played with us and treated us like children," shouted one mother.

"This is politics. You're playing politics when people are dying and getting shot down here every day," shouted an anguished member of The Mob Crew.

"You aren't here 24/7 (hours/days) like we are," a resident of Clarence Street told Belcher. "You don't have to look every time a car passes. You don't have to worry someone is going to step out from behind a house and shoot you. And you don't have to worry about taking your kid to the corner store because you're afraid he'll get killed."

Belcher emphasized there were other people to continue Boyle's work. He said his decision involved a "much larger Jesuit question than just the local parish." One church source who spoke on condition of anonymity said, "The Jesuits here have no real desire for him to come back. They criticize his popularity, say he used money for his gang programs that was earmarked elsewhere, transgressed emotional parental boundaries and ran roughshod over diocesan boundaries."

Associate Pastor Gerald Cowhig, however, says he strongly supports Boyle's return to Los Angeles and thinks a compromise can be struck. Father Pete Neeley, current pastor, and Father Tom Smolich, director of the mission's Proyecto Pastoral, said they supported Boyle's return. Neeley, however, said he opposed Boyles return to Dolores Mission because it would undercut his authority and confuse people as to who was really in charge.

Smolich is a longtime friend of Boyle's. But during the last year they clashed repeatedly over the allocation of the mission's resources to the gang programs and Boyle's continued deficit spending. Boyle responded: "I know I cast a long shadow, but I have no desire to be pastor or undercut Pete. I also know my weaknesses. It's true I don't care about checkbooks. It's also true I raised a hell of a lot of money for projects here."

There is also the question of Mahony. Publicly, Mahony has refused to comment, saying it's an "internal Jesuit matter." Bill Rivera, archdiocesan spokesman, said, "Father Boyle would be welcome back in any parish in the archdiocese." It is also true, however, that Mahony and Boyle have clashed, particularly over the mission's refusal to cooperate with Immigration and Naturalization Service policies.

That led to a temporary order from Mahony that prohibited Boyle and several other priests from making critical statements on church-INS cooperation back in 1986. Mahony also tried at that time to have Boyle removed as pastor by the Jesuits. Now the cardinal is leading the fund-raising for a new gang-intervention program, Hope In Youth. That five-year program will cost $107.3 million (most yet to be raised). It's also a program Boyle opposes "because it provides no support or viable economic options for gang members. Instead it emphasizes prevention, a buzzword for eliminating kids still banging."

Meanwhile, parishioners say they will continue to try to bring Boyle back to Los Angeles. Their next steps may include a peace march, picketing of the cardinal's residence and visits to the Los Angeles City Council and the county Board of Supervisors.

"The church is the people, not that building over there," said Proyecto Pastoral Board President Yolanda Chavez. "This is about empowerment. Maybe it's time this community demands a say in which priests are here to serve us."
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Title Annotation:Father Greg Boyle
Author:Crogan, Jim
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Mar 12, 1993
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