Priests, Bishop to Hold Rare Forum

By Rita Ciolli
Newsday [Long Island NY]
Downloaded January 18, 2004

In an effort to end the divisiveness that has shaken the Catholic Church on Long Island, Bishop William Murphy will take the extraordinary step of standing before his priests tomorrow to listen to their worries about a diocese they have described as angry and beset with malaise.

"I hope all priests will come to the meeting and feel empowered to speak the truth, as they know it, in a spirit of charity," said the Rev. William Brisotti, pastor of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in Wyandanch. He is one of the 52 priests who signed a letter to Murphy telling of the "distressing" sense of alienation in the Diocese of Rockville Centre.

Even before the letter was sent, Murphy agreed to an unprecedented open forum discussion. Tomorrow's private meeting, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., at St. John the Baptist, a diocesan high school in West Islip, will begin with prayers and opening remarks by Murphy. Afterward, the priests will break into smaller groups to discuss their concerns, such as Murphy's leadership style, his relations with priests who disagree with him and his handling of priests accused of abuse, as well as those who feel the problems in the diocese have been blown out of proportion.

In regards to the laity, one of the more contentious issues will be his refusal to let Voice of the Faithful, a group seeking changes in church management, to meet on parish property.

The Rev. George Watson, a Jesuit who specializes in mediation services, will present the questions that the groups develop. Murphy will respond. Priests can also question Murphy directly. Organizers are expecting a turnout of up to 150 priests out of about 400 in the diocese.

While Murphy quickly embraced the proposal for a meeting and has often expressed his desire to strengthen bonds with his priests, he declined to comment before the meeting.

However, Msgr. James McNamara said there are more than two sides to the discussion and that priests need to listen to each other as well. "Some supporters of Bishop Murphy will say that he is trying to do a good job and don't want to lay all the problems at his doorstep," said McNamara, pastor of Church of the Holy Cross in Nesconset.

McNamara, who is highly regarded in the diocese, was asked by Murphy to negotiate the details of the meeting with the four priests on the organizing committee, putting him in what he said is an awkward position.

McNamara described the bishop as "open and honest" during the planning process.

McNamara said he hopes as many priests as possible attend, even those who may have declined to sign the letter because they did not like its tone or didn't feel a meeting was necessary. "All voices need to be heard," he said.

Meanwhile, in recognition of how important the meeting is for the life of the diocese, church doors at some parishes will be open tomorrow to allow Catholics to pray for their bishop and clergy. One of the largest gatherings is expected to be at St. Hugh of Lincoln in Huntington Station, a parish struggling with the legacy of several abusive priests. There is a prayer vigil there tonight at 7 and tomorrow during the hours of the meeting. The Eucharist will be on special display.

"This meeting is an opportunity for hope, healing and communion," reads a flier distributed at the church asking for prayers for the bishop and his priests.

For Murphy, the stakes are high. Financial contributions are down and fallout from the abuse scandal has sidetracked him from enacting his own agenda in the diocese.

"This is a crisis of great proportion for his own career," said Stephen Pope, an associate professor of theology at Boston College. Pope said top church officials would be watching to see whether Murphy, who was installed as head of the Rockville Centre Diocese in September 2001, can be an effective leader, a key requirement to moving up the ranks in the church.

"Any disagreement, let alone public protest by priests, is quite startling from a Catholic perspective. It is only done when there is a lot of thought behind it because there is a lot at stake," Pope said.

After the Long Island priests acted in late November, a similar letter was sent by 74 priests in the Archdiocese of New York to Cardinal Edward Egan, saying that morale among priests there was "at an all-time low." A spokesman for Egan said that petition was never formally delivered and that the cardinal would not hold such a meeting because such discussions could take place during frequently scheduled priest councils.

One Long Island priest who asked not to be identified likened the encounter between Murphy and the priests to a marriage-counseling session. There has been an acknowledgment that the relationship is in trouble and now the parties are starting to talk about it, he said.

Murphy needs to restore the collegiality and trust among many of his priests, some of the most influential lay leaders say, and, in turn, win over the confidence of an educated and affluent laity that made Rockville Centre one of the richest dioceses in the nation.

"The local priest is supposed to represent the bishop in the local congregation. That is pretty difficult to do if I am not in one accord or mind with my bishop," said the Rev. Michael Sullivan, a canon lawyer in Minneapolis and a board member of Justice For Priests and Deacons, a San Diego-based support organization for priests.

One of the key issues being discussed in an auditorium in West Islip is also boiling over in New York and other dioceses. Bishops everywhere are under intense public pressure to rid the church of priests who have abused minors. However, this zero-tolerance policy, as well as what some priests see as the shunning and poor treatment of colleagues, has frayed the bishop-priest relationship.

"There is a real concern that the bishops, in trying to meet the crisis of the sexual abuse problem, have really jeopardized the rights of their priests," said the Rev. Robert J. Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, which represents more than 27,000 priests in two-thirds of the nation's dioceses.

Silva said it is going "to take this kind of dialogue to heal this breach" in many dioceses, adding that while the results of other priest-bishop encounters have been positive, "the priests need to be open to some of the difficult things the bishop might say to them."

While some of the fallout from the abuse scandal is nationwide, some of the problems here are particular to Murphy. "We perceive a fairly widespread dissatisfaction with the way you have related to some clergy and laity and we sense a certain lack of confidence in your pastoral leadership," the priests wrote Murphy in their letter.

In a February statement, Murphy acknowledged that he has yet to gain broad respect because he came from Boston and has been tainted by his association with instances of priests abusing minors and the systemic cover-up that took place there.

His swift ban on the Voice of the Faithful in the summer of 2002, after the nascent grassroots group met once in a church basement, probably accelerated the group's growth to 1,600 members and cemented their role as dogged antagonists, critics say. Despite meeting with the group's leaders and priests who have pleaded their case, Murphy maintains that he is unsure of what the group wants to change in the church.

"The ban is one of the most obvious examples of how he conducts himself," said Dan Bartley, co-director of the Long Island chapter. "The diocese needs a pastoral, collaborative leader, not a CEO."

Other priests observed that Murphy's years of service at the Vatican and in the huge, very traditional Archdiocese of Boston instilled a management approach and lifestyle that causes friction here, a more relaxed suburban diocese where the clergy and faithful are used to a leader who came up through the local ranks.

For many, priests said, the disconnect with their leader is symbolized by Murphy's decision to spend more than $1.1 million to renovate the top floor of a former convent in Rockville Centre for his residence, displacing a handful of elderly nuns. Some are expected to suggest tomorrow that Murphy move from his new residence as a first demonstration that he understands the resentment of the laity.

"He is new and comes with the struggles of Boston. Most bishops grow into their jobs ... ," said Pope, who added that there are bishops who are more difficult for their priests to deal with than Murphy. "This doesn't have to be a situation of permanent alienation between a bishop and his priests."

Murphy and the committee of priests that circulated the letter are expected to make a statement tomorrow after the meeting about what transpired. However, no one is expecting concrete results soon. "I would hope that the first meetings are for purposes of communication and dialogue and not for resolution. Resolution is just too quick," said Sullivan, the church lawyer from Minnesota.

McNamara said there must be time for everyone present to absorb what happened. "There will be follow-up," he said.

However, much has already been accomplished, said Silva, head of the priest federation. "The Rockville Centre meeting alone is a real accomplishment because the priests had the courage to ask and the bishop had the courage to say yes."


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