A Parish Divided over Priest
A Fierce Debate over Internet Sites He Visited
By Katie Thomas
February 26, 2003
Few parishioners at St. Louis de Montfort Church dispute the story's lurid heart.
Over a period of time, their well-liked pastor, the Rev. Charles Papa, visited hundreds of pornographic Web sites from his rectory computer.
Papa's friends say he admitted to his actions. He left the Sound Beach parish last month to seek counseling, and a spokeswoman for the Diocese of Rockville Centre said he is on a "medical leave of absence" to treat depression. After initially agreeing to an interview, Papa declined to comment yesterday, saying he had been advised not to speak by Bishop William Murphy.
The rest of the tale is fiercely debated because the news broke in the midst of a parish dispute about the church's handling of sexual abuse cases.
Papa's critics charge the Web sites he had been visiting involved child pornography and revealed a possible sexual interest in young boys. "We pray that no child in our parish has been abused," said Dennis Kozak, the leader of a group that has been critical of Papa. "But that information has not been given the opportunity to see the light of day."
Papa's supporters contend that while the priest admitted to viewing pornography, he denied any of the sites involved children. A Suffolk police investigation resulted in no allegations against him, nor did it find he had visited child porn Web sites.
What's more, some say they fear Papa has been caught up in a witch- hunt made possible by an atmosphere of mistrust of priests. "What we're blessed with here in America is the expectation of privacy," said Papa's attorney, Charlie Russo. "What I fear is that in the present-day climate, a person such as Charlie is defenseless."
That Papa should be accused of viewing child pornography surprised nearly everyone. After all, Papa, who is 61 and has served as the pastor of the 4,500-family parish for three years, had encouraged parishioners who wanted to join Voice of the Faithful, a group that has been outspoken about abuse of children by priests and the church's response. At a November meeting of the Long Island Voice of the Faithful, co-director Dan Bartley praised Papa and other priests for supporting their cause.
Papa's supporters contend these stances made him a target. His opponents reply that their troubled past with Papa had nothing to do with it.
The problems began last summer, when Papa supported church members who wanted to create a local Voice of the Faithful chapter. But the newly formed group earned the ire of several parishioners.
Voice of the Faithful's "agenda was far more than the sexual abuse of minors by clergy," Kozak said.
Kozak and others became regulars at the meetings, criticizing what they said was Voice of the Faithful's true mission - to liberalize the church by permitting gays and women to become priests, and to upend the church hierarchy by allowing for the election of bishops by the laity. However, Bartley said Voice of the Faithful does not hold those views.
Adele Broderick, a Port Jefferson resident who attended Sound Beach Voice of the Faithful meetings, said Kozak's group "came to meetings at which Father Papa was present and they were maniacal. You couldn't even speak without them taking over."
Some in Kozak's group already had reasons to dislike Papa. They say he criticized Bishop Murphy in sermons for how much money he spent to renovate his residence, and that he flew into rages when they tried to voice their complaints. And they say he carried in an open glass, rather than a covered chalice, the consecrated wine that Catholics believe is the blood of Christ.
"He really had no regard for any of the sacraments of the church," said Louise Kramer, who left the parish two years ago because she disagreed with Papa.
But despite problems with their pastor, Kozak and his group said they could never have predicted what would happen next. Last fall, a parish secretary discovered a shortcut to a pornographic site on her computer desktop. Once alerted, Kozak said, Papa told the business manager, Connell Friel, to check the hard drives of every parish computer.
Friel said he hadn't planned on checking the pastor's own computer until Papa asked him, the first week in December, for his help deleting unsolicited pornographic e-mail messages. "Then I suspected that he might himself be involved" in viewing pornography, said Friel, who is the parish's computer network administrator.
So when Papa left for vacation later that month, Friel checked the pastor's rectory computer. His search turned up hundreds of "cookies" - a sort of electronic calling card some Web sites leave on users' computers. Many of the cookies, Friel said, were from sites featuring images of sex with young boys.
Alarmed, Friel - a member of Kozak's group - e-mailed his discovery to Kozak. Kozak said he called Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota.
A few weeks later - before the parish or diocese knew the district attorney was investigating - Friel said, he removed Papa's hard drive at the suggestion of the district attorney's office. But a source in Spota's office said Friel's account mischaracterized the events: "He was not acting as our agent."
Nonetheless, Friel said he believed he had permission to do this according to his duties as network administrator. The case was turned over to the Suffolk police, said Police Commissioner John Gallagher. Gallagher said detectives told him the cookies could have been left by unwanted pop-up ads while Papa was visiting other pornographic sites. Gallagher, a member of the parish, said he asked the detectives if they thought Papa had been viewing child porn sites. The response was that "there was no visitation," he said.
Joanne Novarro, a spokeswoman for the diocese, said Papa's priestly faculties have not been removed. "He is going to seek some spiritual guidance as well as psychological help," she said.
What happened next enraged Kozak and his followers. They say a letter read to all Masses Feb. 8 and 9 failed to adequately explain why Papa left. The letter said Papa had visited "immoral" Web sites as part of his depression. Charlotte Agostinho, a member of Kozak's group, said parents should have been advised to talk to their children, in the chance that the pornographic sites were a symptom of pedophilia.
"These parents - and grandparents - left that Mass that I was at, and all the other Masses, not knowing what questions to ask," she said.
Papa's supporters say while he may have sinned, he hurt no one but himself.
John McNamara, the parish's religious education director, said Papa didn't fit the profile of a pedophile and took no particular interest in working with children. For that reason, McNamara saw no need for a more thorough explanation. "I didn't think that would be helpful or necessary," he said.
Many in the parish say they have a hard time believing Kozak's charges that Papa viewed child porn because he had been so outspoken about Papa in the past. Parishioner Rita Dlug and others said Kozak should have gone first to Papa. "If you love a brother, you approach him first," she said. "That's what we do."
Kozak said he went to the authorities because "we found that in the interests of our children we had to act."
One of the most tragic outcomes of the parish dispute has been the effect it's had on friendships, said Faye Zaino, a member of Kozak's group. "We've been there through sicknesses, everything," she said. "And now people just make like they don't see us."
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