By Grant Welker
LOWELL -- When officers watched as a black Chevrolet Equinox passed through known prostitution spots in the city more than a dozen times since late November, it wasn't just another john they were seeing.
It was allegedly someone among the highest-ranking officials in the Archdiocese of Boston, the fourth-largest in the Roman Catholic Church in America.
Monsignor Arthur Coyle, a priest for 36 years, was honored in December with the title of "prelate of honor" by the head of the archdiocese, Cardinal Sean O'Malley and then-Pope Benedict XVI. Coyle has served as a trustee for two Boston area Catholic high schools, including Lowell Catholic, as well as a high-school chaplain and a college director of campus ministry.
Coyle, 62, has been held in high regard by the church, but his future with the archdiocese of 1.8 million Catholics is now in doubt after he was arrested Aug. 4, and charged with offering a prostitute money for oral sex while parked in his car in a cemetery off Boston Road in Lowell.
He pleaded not guilty and was released on bail after his arraignment.
Coyle is scheduled to appear in court Sept. 16 for a pretrial hearing.
The archdiocese announced the day of Coyle's arraignment that Coyle had taken a voluntary administrative leave as a result of the charges. While on leave, he is prohibited from performing any public ministry, which will last until an outcome is reached on the case, the office said.
Coyle, who was ordained as a priest in 1977, won't likely be fired, but he will probably be demoted, said Thomas Groome, a professor of theology and religious education at Boston College.
"He was probably on his way to becoming a bishop, but that won't happen now, though," Groome said.
Thomas Reese, a senior analyst with the National Catholic Reporter, agreed, saying a rise in the ranks of the archdiocese is now out of the question for Coyle.
But what happens to Coyle depends on many factors, Reese said, including whether the church determines the alleged prostitution incident was an isolated incident or part of a pattern.
According to a police report, officers in Lowell Police Department's Special Investigations Section were familiar with Coyle's Chevrolet Equinox, having seen him circle around known prostitution hot spots in the city "well over a dozen times" since he was first stopped and warned last November.
"There's a lot of flexibility here in terms of looking at the man," Reese said. "Was this maybe a recent pattern of development?"
If Coyle pleads guilty or is found guilty, the church would likely have to perform psychological and spiritual evaluations, Reese said. Coyle could be demoted or asked to retire.
As an episcopal vicar, Coyle has overseen the Merrimack Valley region, one of five geographic areas the archdiocese has created for its 144 member communities in eastern Massachusetts. The Merrimack Valley region goes from Amesbury in the north and east, to Ayer and Townsend in the west, to Billerica in the south.
With the title of monsignor, Coyle is outranked in the archdiocese only by the cardinal and six bishops, according to the website Catholic-Hierarchy. And as an episcopal vicar, he has the authority to act on behalf of the bishop, or head of a diocese or archdiocese, and deals often with personnel issues.
Coyle was "kind of the man between the bishop and the priests," Reese said. The position, he added, comes with as much or as little power as the bishop chooses to give.
But Coyle's rank and position show he was trusted and valued.
"Any priest made a monsignor or episcopal vicar is someone the bishop trusts, and he has some status in the diocese with the bishop and other priests," said Reese, a priest himself.
On the other hand, he added, "Obviously, this guy is never going to be made a bishop."
Groome, the Boston College theology professor, said he thinks Coyle "will definitely be demoted."
"I think it ruins the poor guy's life," he said. "It's the end of his rise in the hierarchy for sure."
Follow Grant Welker at Twitter.com/SunGrantWelker.