Bishop: We'll Talk
Murphy Agrees to Meet with Priests about the Diocese's Future
By Rita Ciolli
Newsday [Long Island NY]
December 4, 2003
More than 50 Catholic priests expressing "sadness and a sense of desperation" have signed a letter to Bishop William Murphy asking for a meeting to address what they describe as widespread dissatisfaction and a lack of confidence in his leadership among the clergy and laity in the Diocese of Rockville Centre.
When the bishop learned about and saw a copy of the extraordinary petition being circulated from rectory to rectory last month, he quickly agreed to the meeting - even before the formal letter with the list of signatures was sent to him last week.
The tone of the letter is respectful and conciliatory. It expresses hope that if both sides meet in "a spirit of truth and humility" the effort to repair the diocese will work. Yet, the two-page letter reveals a deep chasm between the priests on the front lines in Long Island parishes and their leader.
"In our own personal experience we have perceived a general malaise and even an abiding anger within our beloved diocese. There are very many in the diocese, clergy and laity who sense the same atmosphere ...," the priests wrote. "There is open and public conflict that remains unresolved and it is the experience of many that life goes on under a dark cloud. What others and we experience is not an acceptable situation."
Murphy's quick response in agreeing to a meeting was described by some priests as an effort to blunt a growing clergy revolt. However, other priests praised him for his enthusiasm and openness to the idea.
Murphy described a dialogue as a "wonderful idea" at a regularly scheduled clergy conference last week and encouraged two of the organizers of the petition to speak to the priests about their efforts at a regularly scheduled meeting last week.
The organizers contacted most of the about 400 priests in the diocese, about 100 of whom are retired. Priests who were involved in the signature gathering said that while more clerics shared their concerns over Murphy's leadership and worries about a sharp decline in contributions they didn't sign initially for fear of repercussion or the impact it would have on their careers. About two-thirds of the signers are pastors or former pastors ranging from some of the most liberal and outspoken to conservatives. Almost 20 percent are monsignors, according to priests involved.
The Jan. 19 meeting will be moderated by the Rev. David Couturier, a Capuchin priest from White Plains who is a professional facilitator. The holiday commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was chosen so the auditorium of a Catholic high school would be available. After a Newsday inquiry, the diocese issued a press release by the organizers yesterday announcing the gathering, saying Murphy will respond to questions and concerns raised by the priests.
"In a forum like this he might hear some difficult things," said Msgr. James M. McNamara, who was asked by Murphy to be his personal representative to the priests organizing the letter drive. "I think he is making an honest effort to listen and to respond," said McNamara, pastor of the Parish of the Holy Cross in Nesconset, who said he has been friends with Murphy for 20 years beginning when they spent time studying in Rome.
The Rev. Thomas Gallagher, one of the four priests on the organizing committee, said Murphy's encouraging response will probably draw many priests, regardless of whether they signed the letter.
"It will give the bishop a chance to know us better because we probably will be talking from the content of our own hearts and, hopefully, to his. I don't know if we have ever had that kind of situation with Bishop Murphy since he got here," said Gallagher, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in North Merrick. The other members of the priest committee are the Rev. Chris Aridas, pastor of St. Margaret of Scotland Church in Selden; Msgr. Peter Pflomm, pastor of Maria Regina Church in Seaford; and Msgr. Daniel Hurley of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Massapequa.
Gallagher noted there was never a chance for Murphy to "meld" with his priests because a week after he was installed as bishop on Sept. 4, 2001, terrorists attacked the World Trade Center. Less than a year later, the priest sex abuse scandal rocked the Catholic Church in Boston, where Murphy had been second-in-command, with severe repercussions nationwide and on Long Island. "Everyone has been on roller skates ever since," Gallagher said.
The Rev. Robert Bullock, one of the leaders of the Boston Priests Forum whose call for the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law in 2002 caught the attention of the Vatican, said the movement by priests on Long Island shows the church can't return to business as usual. "The sex abuse crisis revealed the deeper and more systemic problems in the church today," Bullock said.
"There is a leadership crisis, and that is the issue the priests and the people are trying to deal with," Bullock added. "These priests are selfless in speaking to the needs of the church which they are experiencing directly."
McNamara and other priests said an important issue for discussion will be the recognition of Voice of the Faithful, an organization of the laity seeking more accountability from the church hierarchy and an increased role in church finances and other governance areas. Murphy has criticized the group and banned it from meeting on church property.
The letter sent to the bishop went through several revisions, with some demands, such as allowing Voice of the Faithful to meet on church property dropped, according to priests involved. Yesterday, the group praised priests who stepped forward to take on a bishop who earlier this year cautioned he would use church law to "silence" a diocesan priest for writing an opinion essay calling for the resignation of church leaders in power during the cover-up of the sexual abuse of minors.
"We support the efforts of this courageous group of priests," board members of Voice of the Faithful on Long Island said in a statement released yesterday. "And we hope their courageous and principled stand will help bring peace to our diocese."
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