Priest: Murphy Censored Article

By Rita Ciolli
Newsday [Long Island NY]
September 25, 2003

Citing a rarely used church law, Bishop William Murphy warned a Long Island priest in March not to publish an article calling for bishops and other church officials "tainted" by the sex abuse scandal to "relinquish" their positions, the priest recently confirmed after Newsday learned his identity.

The priest, who said he agreed to Murphy's request, described the incident as a "silencing." Agreeing to disclose the episode but wanting to respect the authority of the bishop as his superior, the priest requested that his name be withheld.

Joanne Novarro, spokeswoman for the Rockville Centre diocese, described the action as a "warning" by the bishop. "He didn't silence anyone, he simply told a priest what canon law says about things that are published in the secular media."

Canon law is the legal system governing the Roman Catholic church, detailing the rights and responsibilities of its members. Section 831, which the priest said Murphy cited, requires clerics to get prior approval from their bishop to write in newspapers, pamphlets or periodicals "which clearly are accustomed to attack the catholic religion or good morals."

Despite the March warning, the bishop has not issued a general notice to priests about submitting controversial writings for approval. "I assume most priests are familiar with canon law," Novarro said, also noting that the priest's view that bishops touched by the scandal should resign "was one person's opinion."

The Rev. James Coriden, a leading authority on church law, said the incident was highly unusual. "It sounds like an attempt, rather informally, to intimidate and cause him to cease and desist," said Coriden, a professor at Washington Theological Union and the author of several texts on canon law. Coriden said the section Murphy cited was written mostly to cover government-controlled media, such as communist propaganda outlets during the Cold War.

Word of the episode has been circulating recently among concerned priests who see the clamping down by Murphy as yet another sign of the deepening rift between the leadership in Rockville Centre and parish priests. Small groups of priests, frustrated with Murphy's leadership of the diocese, have been meeting quietly to pray and determine how best to let their dissatisfaction be known, according to some priests who asked that their names not be used.

The Rev. Tom St. Pierre, co-pastor of St. Anne's in Brentwood, said news that Murphy prevented a priest from speaking out has a chilling effect on other priests. "It would lower morale, it would be frightening and stifling," he said. "It would push guys further into their own little groups and make them less willing to discuss these things as a brotherhood, openly."

To some priests, including the one who wrote the article, Murphy's moral authority is too damaged by his link to the Boston abuse scandal to effectively shepherd on Long Island. Other priests are concerned by what they feel is unfair treatment for colleagues accused of sexual abuse. Another group wants Murphy to open a dialogue with priests on the future of the priesthood, including the topics of celibacy and marriage.

Struggling with decreasing donations, some pastors say they are caught between a top-down management style in Rockville Centre and parishioners who are demanding a greater role in church affairs. "The problems are festering and they are bearing bad fruit," said one.

With regard to the restlessness among priests, Novarro said, "If the priests, as a group, decided they needed to meet with the bishop, I think he would be open to that." Murphy's last conference with all the priests of the diocese was in October 2001, a month after he was installed as head of the diocese.

Since then, Murphy has frequently summoned priests who have publicly expressed views different from his on the abuse scandal, the Voice of the Faithful, a lay group seeking a greater role in church governance, or parish finances, the priests have told Newsday. Priests who are quoted by name in media reports are also called in for a conference, according to two priests who met with the bishop.

St. Pierre also had a meeting with Murphy in November after the Brentwood priest authored a Sunday opinion piece in Newsday, saying democracy won't come to the church without a battle. St. Pierre said Murphy told him he was unhappy with the article but said the bishop did not tell him he had violated canon law or that he had to get prior approval for future articles.

The bishop's attitude apparently changed earlier this year after Murphy obtained a copy of the three-page draft, days after the priest had circulated it among a handful of his colleagues for feedback, the priest said. In the draft, the priest wrote about his experience as a junior officer on a U.S. Navy ship that had run aground trying to maneuver through some straits in waters off Southeast Asia. While the damage to the vessel was minor, the Navy relieved the well-regarded skipper of his command and then reassigned the officers on watch to shore duty, he wrote.

The draft does not mention Murphy by name and says "my bishops and others are terrific people and great priests." However, the priest wrote, "they are all responsible for what happened on their watches and must relinquish their positions and accept shore duty."

On March 12, Murphy summoned the priest to diocesan headquarters in Rockville Centre. Novarro said the bishop considers what happened a "private conversation" and would not discuss the details.

According to the priest, when he arrived, Murphy -- with Rev. Robert Morrissey, vice chancellor and chief canon lawyer for the diocese also present -- began reading section 831 from a canon law text.

Afterward, Murphy told the priest he was very worried about the impact the article would have "on the church" if it were published, especially in Newsday. In addition, Murphy defended his fellow bishops, saying they were "not guilty" of any wrongdoing in reassigning abusive priests to new parishes and jobs that kept them in contact with children.

"All they did was follow the advice of their counselors," the bishop said, according to the priest.

Murphy asked the priest if he was calling for his resignation. The priest said that he was still wrestling with the question and told the bishop he would voluntarily accept his authority to prohibit him from publishing the article.

The episode occurred after a difficult winter for Murphy. Cardinal Bernard Law, a mentor, had resigned in December as head of the Boston Archdiocese, in part because of an emerging rebellion from priests. In February, Murphy testified before a Massachusetts grand jury about his role as second in command in Boston from 1993 to 2001. Days later, a Suffolk County grand jury issued a scathing report about problems in Murphy's new diocese on Long Island. While the report focused mainly on the handling of abuse cases by Murphy's predecessor, the late John McGann, it outraged local Catholics, demoralized priests and placed increasing demands on Murphy's leadership.

And two weeks ago, the Boston Archdiocese agreed to pay $85 million to victims in settlement of lawsuits stemming from the abuse cases.

One canon lawyer said disagreements between priests and bishops are best kept in house. The Rev. Ronald Bowers, an expert on the individual rights of priests, said while priests don't need to agree with every statement or decision of their bishop, they are prevented from public dissent.

"It is one thing to hold a debate with one's bishops in the public press and another to hold it over a conference table on a one-to-one basis," said Bowers, a professor of canon law at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.

However, Vincent Branick, a professor of religious studies and ethics at the University of Dayton, a Catholic institution, said stifling of internal disagreement remains a major problem in the church.

"This is absolutely horrible," said Branick. "To silence the discussion because it is disagreeable is an abuse of power."


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