By Alan Burke
MARBLEHEAD — The Rev. Dennis Burns cemented his reputation at the height of the priest abuse scandal, as far as his friend Mark Brings is concerned.
As the longtime pastor of the Our Lady, Star of the Sea Church, Burns did not want his parishioners' donations taken to settle lawsuits filed by victims. It wasn't because of a lack of sympathy for those who suffered at the hands of rogue priests; rather, Burns saw the problem as a matter for the hierarchy to deal with, the people who created the situation
"He bucked the archdiocese," Brings says. "He bucked Cardinal Law." As for the offending priests, "He thought they should be prosecuted."
Burns also made room in his church for Voice of the Faithful, a group of Catholics at odds with church leaders.
For Brings, it was all a profile in courage.
In whatever he did, the 88-year-old Burns, who died on Tuesday, had the support of both his parishioners and the town that he adopted after coming here in 1990 at the age of 70.
"I never had roots before," Burns had said of his tenure. "I loved it from day one. The people are great. There's a great spirit in the town. ... And you can't go anywhere without hitting the ocean."
Selectman Judy Jacobi got to know Burns as a friend simply by attending funerals and public ceremonies together.
"His death is hitting me even though I'm not a Catholic," she said yesterday. "He was a good man. He loved people. His parishioners loved him to death. ... He set a standard for the clergy."
Parishioner Dave Cashman shared Burns's love of the sea and often invited him out on his boat.
"He looked at the individual as an individual," Cashman said. "Your religion didn't really matter."
Both Cashman and Jacobi agree that Burns was particularly bright. He held a doctorate in canon law, for example.
"He was a very knowledgeable person," Cashman said. "I was fortunate enough to be in a book club with him. I never left without learning something from Father Burns."
Cashman also praises Burns' patriotism, the attention he paid to veterans and the fact that he threw open the doors of the church after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
When Burns left Marblehead for Swampscott in 2005, Cashman and others followed.
Marblehead police Sgt. Marion Keating notes Burns's progressive attitudes, influencing and liberalizing the church's views on annulments, for example, allowing some divorced Catholics to return to the church in good standing.
"He was the nicest, nicest guy," Keating said. On the job, when police discovered a family or individual in trouble, they knew they could rely on Burns. "We could call him up in the middle of the night. He never said, 'I'm not on duty.' He was always willing to help. He never said no to anyone."
Brings remembers the diminutive priest's cigar. "Boy, he loved that cigar. And it was almost as tall as he was."
Burns will lie in state from 4 to 8 p.m. tomorrow at St. John the Evangelist Church, 174 Humphrey St., Swampscott. The funeral is planned for 11 a.m. Saturday, also at St. John's, with burial at Waterside Cemetery in Marblehead.