Whose Example to Follow? New Bishop Has a Choice
By Howard Goodman firstname.lastname@example.org
Sun-Sentinel [Palm Beach FL]
September 28, 2003
The Roman Catholic Church has never been known as the most open of institutions.
So maybe we shouldn't be too surprised by new evidence that the Very Rev. James Murtagh was doing some fancy dancing with the truth last year when speaking about the burgeoning scandals involving priests and pedophilia.
Murtagh said the diocese never had to investigate or settle cases of priests abusing minors -- though that wasn't true for priests misbehaving with women -- which Murtagh placed in a separate and decidedly less serious category.
Then temporary head of the Palm Beach Diocese, Murtagh stepped in after the abrupt resignation in March 2002 of Bishop Anthony O'Connell, the second consecutive bishop to resign in disgrace over past sexual misconduct.
A lawsuit, filed Wednesday, contends that Murtagh as caretaker was hardly opening the windows and letting in fresh air.
Filed by an unidentified local man who says he was molested as a teenager in 1991 and 1992 by Father Matthew Fitzgerald, then a parish priest in Boca Raton, the suit asserts Murtagh was told about the alleged abuse in 2000.
Murtagh allegedly didn't investigate the claims, however. He didn't report what he heard to the State Attorney's Office or to other authorities, the lawsuit states.
As for the statements Murtagh gave to reporters, saying he knew of no cases of sexual misconduct against minors: "patently false," according to the lawsuit. Maybe not false, but certainly oily. It was denial couched in qualifiers: "there was no determination" of abuse; there'd been no financial settlements.
The diocese declined to comment on the lawsuit. But C. Brooks Ricca, the diocese's attorney, told reporters there were reasons Murtagh didn't investigate.
One, Fitzgerald was retired (forcibly so, after years of dodging charges of sexual misconduct in a series of parishes). Two, the victim, now 27, refused to press charges.
To some people, these developments aren't news.
Ed Ricci, an attorney who has helped raise $895 million for Catholic causes, said he was infuriated when he heard Murtagh deny knowledge of priests molesting kids.
At the time, Ricci says, he had been approached by six families who said their children had been fondled by priests in Palm Beach County. One of those was the "John Doe" in the current suit. The others could result in legal action, too, if the statute of limitations permits.
"I had that information in confidence and couldn't say anything, which was why I was so offended that a man of the cloth would spin a story," Ricci said.
Let's contrast Murtagh with his successor, Bishop Sean P. O'Malley.
O'Malley, a Capuchin friar, arrived with a reputation for facing sex-abuse scandals with unusual openness and integrity. He was here only nine months before being sent to Boston, the mother of all scandalized archdioceses.
After only five weeks, O'Malley brokered an $85 million settlement with 550 Boston sex-abuse victims -- a deal that eluded his predecessor, Cardinal Bernard Law, the former Boston archbishop, for more than a year.
O'Malley is getting high marks for listening to victims, taking them seriously, and starting a healing that seemed unthinkable just weeks ago.
"Without his courage," said Roderick McLeish, a lawyer whose firm represented more than 200 of the victims who approved of the settlement, "none of this would have been possible."
Gerald M. Barbarito, Palm Beach County's new bishop, is still an untested quantity. He's had the post only since August.
He has two recent role models.
There's the lawyerly approach of Murtagh, intent on protecting the institution of the church, no matter if anyone's misled in the process.
And the example of O'Malley, who put people in pain ahead of the lawyers and institutional pride.
Let's hope, when the next accusation comes, that Bishop Barbarito knows whom to emulate.
Howard Goodman's column is published Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He can be reached at email@example.com or 561-243-6638.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.