Lay Editor Defends Civil Rights of Accused Priests

By Donna Porstner
The Advocate [Stamford CT]
February 7, 2004

"2004 Southern Connecticut Newspapers Inc.

NORWALK - As Roman Catholic bishops nationwide try to atone for years of ignoring child abuse and pedophilia involving priests, the editor of a liberal Roman Catholic opinion journal says they are depriving accused priests of their rights.

"In our rush to ensure that no child is ever sexually victimized again, and in the bishops' somewhat knee-jerk reaction to the fully justified public outrage at priest pedophilia, we have unwittingly allowed another form of abuse to surface: that against the accused priests," said Catharine Henningsen of Rye Brook, N.Y., the editor of Salt, a bimonthly Catholic newspaper she founded in August 2002.

Addressing the Fairfield County chapter of Voice of the Faithful on Thursday night at the First Congregational Church on the Green, Henningsen said U.S. bishops - including William Lori of the Bridgeport Diocese - are removing priests without due process and pressuring them to resign.

'The Rev. Chris Walsh, Lori's liaison to the local group he has banned from meeting on church property, said it is hypocritical for the same organization that pushed the bishops to weed out child molesters to say two years later that they are being too tough on them. Some of the Voice of the Faithful members, Walsh said, are the same people protesting Lori's decision to keep Monsignor Martin Ryan, pastor of St. Edward the Confessor in New Fairfield, in ministry. Ryan has denied allegations that he tried to kiss and touch a 17-year-old girl in 1978. Lori has said the allegation is not credible.

If the allegation were untrue, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and Voice of the Faithful question why the diocese included Ryan in a $21 million settlement with 40 victims of clergy sex abuse.

Joseph O'Callaghan of Norwalk, chairman of the local Voice of the Faithful chapter, wrote to Lori late last year requesting Ryan be removed from active ministry. SNAP reported Lori to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, saying the bishop is violating the church's zero-tolerance policy on child molesters.

"It was Voice of the Faithful and SNAP demonstrating in front of St. Augustine Cathedral saying, 'How come this guy has not been removed?' so there is some hypocrisy," Walsh said.

Voice of the Faithful members said they are not switching positions because supporting priests of integrity has always been one of the group's stated goals. The organization was founded in 2002 by Catholics in Boston unhappy with the church's handling of abuse cases. Under Canon Law, an accused priest must be given the allegations in writing and be provided with a list of experts on canon law and civil attorneys.

But Henningsen said it is typical for an accused priest to be called into the bishop's office, told there are allegations against him, then be "coerced into submitting his resignation on the spot." She said priests fighting allegations wait three or four years for church trials. Some bishops threaten to take away their income, or substantially reduce their salaries so it's almost impossible for them to make ends meet, Henningsen said. She said some of the accused priests in the Bridgeport Diocese are struggling on stipends of about $1,000 a month. "We have to protect children, they have to come first. But by the same token, are we being fair to the priests accused?" she asked.

Walsh, who lives at St. Mary Church rectory in Norwalk, said $1,000 a month is about how much he expects to earn when he retires."Last time I checked, that is about my average retirement check and priests are not afforded housing in their retirement," he said. "Our salary is not a whole lot more than that. I don't know if you're suggesting they should get a raise." If Voice of the Faithful members believe priests should earn more, Walsh said, they should triple their contributions to the church.

In her talk, Henningsen cited three priests who resigned from their parishes in December 2002 after a victim came forward with 30-year-old allegations. The victim, she said, was a priest who had been accused of sexual abuse himself and was seeking psychological treatment in Canada when he filed his complaint with the Diocese of Bridgeport. "My understanding is that the local review board had some reservations about the credibility of the allegations and wanted to investigate further and Bishop Lori wouldn't let them," said Henningsen, saying she has researched the case and has nterviewed all three priests involved for Salt.

"Those three priests are still in limbo," she said. "Those three priests are still hoping Rome will come back with justice for them." Henningsen was referring to the Rev. Albert McGoldrick, formerly of St. Paul Church in Greenwich; the Rev. Sherman Gray, formerly of Stamford's Holy Name of Jesus Church; and the Rev. Robert Morrissey, formerly of St. Mary Church in Ridgefield.

One of the priests, who declined to be identified, told The Advocate yesterday that the Lori called him in one day and demanded his resignation on the spot. The priest said the resignation was "forced" and he is innocent. Joseph McAleer, a spokesman for the diocese, questions where Henningsen is getting her information.

"Ms. Henningsen's claims are wildly inaccurate in many respects and are perhaps intended only to generate publicity for Voice of the Faithful," McAleer said. "It is not appropriate to comment further, as these cases are still pending." While he was not privy to the review board's assessment of the allegations against the three priests, McAleer said he is confident the bishop's

decision did not conflict with the review board's recommendation.

The diocese has never identified the priests' accuser, saying only that he is a man in his late 30s who claimed he was sexually abused by all three men, on separate occasions, between 1979 and 1983. "We have never, and we will never, identify a victim or someone who does come forward," McAleer said. "We have always taken great measures to protect the identity of someone who has come forward. If they choose to go public, that's another matter."

After the lecture, Voice of the Faithful members said they are troubled by the new climate in the Catholic church in which some accused priests resign before a church trial or before the local review board takes up their cases. "I don't know if these three guys are guilty or not, but they are all entitled to due process," O'Callaghan said.