L.I. Bishop Meets Priests Critical of His Leadership

By Bruce Lambert
The New York Times [West Islip NY]
January 20, 2004

WEST ISLIP, N.Y., Jan. 19 - In a soul-searching session, the besieged bishop of Long Island's nearly 1.5 million Roman Catholics met on Monday with 190 priests concerned about his leadership and the diocese's problems stemming from the sexual-abuse scandals.

Bishop William F. Murphy called the meeting "very helpful" and said it explored "areas of agreement about the direction of the diocese and also differences of opinion."

The bishop and organizers of the meeting, which was closed to outsiders and the news media, declined to discuss specific issues or say what if any changes were agreed on. After brief remarks at a news conference after the meeting, the bishop left without taking questions. Two priests who had attended the meeting answered a few questions.

"We need a great deal of time to process" the discussion, said Msgr. Peter Pflomm, of Seaford, but he added, "I myself leave feeling very hope-filled."

Msgr. James McNamara, who is friendly with the bishop, praised his "honesty and humility." He called the exchange "a frank discussion" and noted that the priests themselves did not always agree with one another.

The extraordinary dialogue, at St. John the Baptist High School here, lasted five hours, replete with prayers, an outside mediator, a question-answer period and small groups to discuss various issues.

Bishop Murphy has faced controversy almost from the start of his tenure in 2001 as the spiritual leader of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, which covers Nassau and Suffolk Counties, comprises 134 parishes and is among the nation's wealthiest dioceses.

Last month the diocese's priests circulated a remarkable letter telling the bishop that they felt "sadness and a sense of desperation." They said: "We have perceived a general malaise and even an abiding anger within our beloved diocese." The letter continued: "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."

Eventually 52 of the diocese's 400 priests signed. But even before they sent the letter, Bishop Murphy heard about it and immediately welcomed the priests' request for a meeting. In announcing the meeting, the diocese acknowledged the "pain acutely felt by priests on the front lines of ministry."

In a Christmas message alluding to the strife, Bishop Murphy said: "There is no place for the suspicion and vindictiveness that Catholics have been showing to one another."

One indicator of the turmoil is that church donations have dropped amid concerns over allegations of sexual abuse by clergy both here on Long Island and nationally. The Bishop's Annual Appeal fell far short of its goal, and some parish collections are also feeling the pain.

Some Catholics have accused Bishop Murphy of taking inadequate remedial steps on the abuse cases here, which predated his arrival. They have also criticized his actions on abuse cases in his prior post as chief deputy to Cardinal Bernard F. Law in the Boston Archdiocese, especially after a report last year in which he was criticized by the Massachusetts attorney general for his handling of sexual-abuse cases.

Bishop Murphy has defended his actions here and in Boston and also says that he is determined that the church take every step necessary to avoid repeating past mistakes.

On the other side of the issue, some priests say that the crackdown on abuse has left them under suspicion, wrongly accused and unfairly penalized.

Bishop Murphy has also clashed with the local branch of Voice of the Faithful, a national lay group formed in reaction to the abuse scandals. He has banned the group from meeting on church property, and its leaders have called for his resignation. An earlier version of the priests' letter urged the bishop to reverse himself and give the group meeting space.

Soon after coming to Long Island, Bishop Murphy also drew fire for removing several nuns from one story of a convent and spending over $1 million to renovate the space into new quarters for himself. Some critics have suggested that he move out.

The abuse scandals erupted here last year when a Suffolk County grand jury report concluded that the diocese had covered up cases, failed to report complaints to law enforcement authorities, ignored victims and kept abusive priests. No criminal charges were filed, however, because the statute of limitations had expired.

After the report, 45 people who said they had been abused filed suit against the diocese, seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. Their cases are pending.

Monday's event was tightly controlled. As the session ended, reporters were herded into a room for the news conference and kept there as the priests exited to the parking lot. Several priests who were approached declined to comment, and one who started to answer was pulled away by a security agent.

Asked what they had for lunch, one priest said, "I don't remember." Another confided that it was hero sandwiches.

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