The Priest Who Walked Away

by Bill Brenner on May 11, 2011

In the decade I’ve lived in Haverhill, Mass., I’ve seen the best and worst sides of the Catholic Church.

On the ugly side, there were priests who played a part in the sex abuse that ultimately blew up in Cardinal Law’s face. There are parishioners who get so caught up in church politics that they forget what they’re truly there for, and they make life miserable for others. There was the priest who used church funds to buy pornography.

On the other side of the spectrum was the priest who went public about his alcoholism, inspiring us all with his comeback. And, most importantly, there are all the people who have found their faith in recent years regardless of whatever ugliness is in the headlines, including me.

Now comes news of the Rev. Robert Conole, pastor of Sacred Hearts Parish, who walked away from his duties to seek help for a “personal matter,” according to my local paper and former employer, The Eagle-Tribune.

Church officials aren’t saying what exactly made him walk away. I’ve heard rumors, but I’m not going to fuel speculation that may or may not be true. All we know is that something got to him and compelled him to walk away for awhile.

We forget priests are human, prone to all the mistakes the rest of us make.

Father Conole has been under immense pressure in recent years. He took on another church in Groveland, Mass., when the Archdiocese of Boston merged a bunch of parishes four years ago. Then Dennis Nason, pastor of my parish, All Saints, passed away last fall, and Conole was given the job of administrator until Father Tim Kearney became pastor more than three months later.

In the eyes of God we all get a shot at redemption. But back in the real world, among mortals, it doesn’t always work that way. People talk and speculate, especially when they don’t know the reason for something like a priest abruptly leaving.

But I’ve also seen people do great things when a priest falls down. I think Father Nason was able to beat back his alcoholism because of the massive outpouring of support he got from the parish. People sent him cards, drawings and letters by the truckload. Gestures like that can make an enormous difference for a person who hits bottom.

When you hit bottom, you start to give serious thought to the possibility that you just might fail to make it out with your soul intact. I remember when my addictions and OCD brought me to that point. Whether it makes you suicidal or not, death starts to look a lot more attractive. But I got to hit bottom out of the public eye. I didn’t have to worry about what the headlines would say.

Since starting this blog, I’ve gotten a ton of support from people. That support makes you feel like you can overcome any obstacle. Just knowing you’re not alone is a big deal.

I think the people of Sacred Hearts should show Conole that kind of support, just like the people at All Saints did for Father Nason a decade ago.

Find out what his current address is. Send him letters, cards and whatever else might cheer a wounded soul.

Let him know you’re pulling for him.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah May 11, 2011 at 3:11 am

Thank you for this Bill! Father Canole is a great man. I just loved his style and my fiance and I both enjoyed meeting with him b/c of his down to earth and almost “cool” manner it really helped me with my recent conversion to the faith. I have had a card sitting in the back seat of my car since the Easter Vigil that I have been meaning to send out to Father Canole…I’ll definately be sending it now! He’s definately not replaceable but my search for another “cool” Priest shall continue!

Nick May 11, 2011 at 6:16 am

Thanks for the compassionate and thoughtful comments you have written about Priests who have proven to be just as human and fallen as the rest of us. It is so refreshing and encouraging to read a fellow Catholic who challenges us all to lift up our Priests when they fall rather than bash them and chalk it up as another failure in the Church. G.K. Chesterton said it well when he was asked “what’s wrong with the world?”, and he responded, “I am”. Ditto!
God bless!

Jeff May 11, 2011 at 1:05 pm

We are human indeed. Let’s all remember to put on the armor of God (Gal 5). Peace be with Father Canole (from Canada)

Debbie August 6, 2011 at 4:53 pm

Mass has not been the same for me since Father Canole left. He spoke from the heart and had so many interesting thoughts . He often talked about current events and always added humor to the homily. At one of the masses he spoke about the scandals the Catholic church was and is facing. He wasn’t afraid to talk about it and that meant so much to me.
Sacred Hearts no longer has the 7pm mass and it is a shame. I often attended that mass and noticed the majority were teenagers. We need a priest like Father Canole that can relate to a variety of ages. I wish him the very best and hopefully he will return.
Great idea about sending him a card. Thank you. I will call the church and get his address.

Morgan November 12, 2011 at 2:39 am

If anyone is able to locate Fr. Bob’s information, could it be emailed to me? I would like to send a card as well.


Renee April 2, 2012 at 4:58 pm

Fr. Conole’s departure from SHS is long overdue.Regardless of what “serious adult violation” he committed, I can attest that I have never met a more arrogant priest. While he may well have done good work in some instances, I know for a fact that he is personally responsible for many who left the Church, as well as young people who never looked back once they were beyond the in-house expectations of their parents. During the height of the priest scandal, he was more concerned with his own ego/image than he was the victims – a mass several walked out of. His rudeness toward women in the parish was well-known, as was his nasty interrogations of confirmation candidates. Good riddance. Fr. Conole. Let the healing begin. Again.

Ron June 3, 2012 at 8:19 pm

Fr. Bob Conole officiated at my daughter’s wedding, and from that point on we became close friends. He was loved by everyone when at St. Francis of Assisi parish in Braintree, including women, men and children. We hated to see him go. When he took over the parish in Bradford, he walked into a terrible mess and had a very difficult time while he tried to bring the parish back to financial stability. Many people there gave him a very difficult time, but he met with great success. This is evidenced by the great additional responsibilities that were placed on him…. apparently too great an additional burden, which I suspect contributed to his problems. No matter what has happened, he’s a wonderful individual and priest, who has contributed to the quality of life of so many people.

Janet May 24, 2013 at 1:43 am

While at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Braintree, Fr. Conole was loved and has been missed greatly. I am not as concerned about what his problem might be as I am that he has a problem at all. The Lord gives us what we can handle, and sometimes asks us to give a hand to those who stumble. When I hear all the nasty gossip, two things race through my thoughts…..”he who is without sin….” and “whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers ….”. God bless you, Fr. Bob, I pray for you.

Janet May 24, 2013 at 1:57 am


Altar Server July 3, 2016 at 9:38 pm

I knew Fr. Bob from early 2000s and as an altar server for him, I can tell you he got a little too close to the first grade teacher at times…sometimes the flirtations were extremely awkward. There were rumors at the time that something was going on, but never confirmed. But I am not surprised to see he was caught in the act.

Kristin July 21, 2016 at 5:43 pm

Does anyone know where he is

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