A Priest Repents for His Breatheren
Oyster Bay Congregants Moved by Gesture

By Rita Ciolli
February 17, 2003

At St. Dominic's Roman Catholic Church Sunday, the Rev. Malcolm Burns read the Gospel about a leper begging Jesus to cleanse him. Then he lived it.

"I want to pray with you on my knees, as the leper from the Gospel begged Jesus," Burns said, moving from the lectern to the lowest altar step. "A leprosy is among us, and priests need to be cleansed."

Then he knelt and faced the crucifix to lead those attending the noon Mass at the Oyster Bay parish in a special prayer for healing. Moments before his dramatic gesture, Burns talked of his own disillusionment. "I am not even sure I believe in my own life as a priest right now," he said.

St. Dominic's, which has among its members some of the wealthiest and biggest donors to the church on Long Island, is one of the parishes deeply torn by the local scandal. A former pastor, Msgr. Charles "Bud" Ribaudo, was removed last spring by Bishop William Murphy for past allegations of abusing students at Trinity High School.

Ribaudo has vigorously but quietly maintained his innocence and is strongly supported by many powerful parish members. His photo still hangs among those of other former pastors in the church vestibule.

Ribaudo was replaced as pastor last spring by Msgr. John Alesandro, a former top official of the diocese and member of the "intervention team" harshly criticized by the Suffolk County grand jury last week for the callous way it treated abuse victims.

Alesandro, tanned from a vacation in Puerto Rico last week, celebrated an earlier Mass Sunday. He referred only obliquely to the scandal in the diocese, spending most of his homily talking about the movie "Ben Hur" and how the lepers in the film were cured.

He also recited the special prayer he wrote with Burns. "We can all pray together, that is a start," he said.

Alesandro, who is both a civil and canon lawyer, greeted a few parishioners after his Mass and no one appeared to mention the events of the past week. The scene was very different after Burns finished. Dozens of parishioners, some tearful, patiently waited in the numbing cold to embrace, kiss and thank him.

"He is our hero. He stood with us through the fire," said Jane Serpico of Oyster Bay.

"Right on the mark," said Hugh Grinnon, shaking the hand of the tall, muscular priest who is a Navy reservist. "It is a good thing to hear that a priest is feeling this like everyone else. A lot of people are hurt."

"It was stunning for him to kneel down before us and ask for forgiveness," said James Hughes, another parishioner. "Unfortunately, the people who should be asking us for forgiveness weren't there."

One of those wiping away tears was Stephanie Van Wie. She is part of a group trying to persuade Bishop William Murphy to let Burns stay at the parish when his term expires in June.

Burns said he wants to stay at St. Dominic's, where he has been assigned for seven years. But he is confronting larger questions.

When he was ordained 17 years ago in Texas, Burns promised to obey and respect his bishop. "I am not so sure I believe that anymore. That's a hard thing. I am struggling with that," he said in his homily. Afterward, he said his remarks were not directed toward a specific leader. "The bishops need to do more than just apologize," he said. "They need to beg for forgiveness."

Burns said that while he is not sure he believes in his life as a priest, he does believe in three things: the truth of the Bible, the miracle of the bread and wine being converted into the body and blood of Christ and the strength of the faithful.

"The miracle, today, is that you are still coming," he said. That you are still here sitting in those pews."

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