Despite Bishop's Apologies, Sexual Abuse Issue Lingers
By Bruce Lambert
The New York Times [Long Island NY]
March 4, 2004
Last month Bishop William F. Murphy acknowledged and apologized for decades of child sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church on Long Island. He offered sympathy to victims and their families and offered them help.
But in court papers, the bishop's lawyer is opposing lawsuits from at least three victims and is accusing the youngsters themselves or their parents of being partly to blame for what happened.
So despite his apologies, some critics say the bishop continues to inflame a subject he says he is trying to resolve.
"Blaming the victims and their parents stoops to the newest low," said Laura A. Ahearn. She is a former adviser to the bishop and founder of Parents for Megan's Law, a national group against abuse. "What Bishop Murphy and his legal sharks are doing is causing them to suffer more. It's abusing them again, publicly."
A national board member of the Survivors Network Against Priest Abuse, David J. Cerulli, said: "It breaks my heart. It revictimizes them all over again. It borders on evil." Abusers often foster feelings of guilt in victims, as happened in his own case, he said.
Bishop Murphy's legal tactics contradict his other statements, the critics say. He described being moved by the plight of victims, in a report mailed to 400,000 Catholic homes in the Diocese of Rockville Centre.
"To each and every one of them I offer my apologies for what has happened to them and I seek to be as helpful as I can be, listening to their stories and trying as best I can to be brother and priest to them," the bishop wrote. "Their stories are heart-wrenching. They all have been so broken by what has been done to them. They often blame themselves when they should not. They feel guilt when they are guiltless."
The bishop added: "I want so much to reach out and bring peace to the afflicted whose own experiences have been so devastating. Day after day they live this hell."
Dr. Patricia Zirkel, co-chairwoman of the Long Island chapter of Voice of the Faithful, a lay group formed in reaction to the scandals, said: "The bishop does appear to be speaking from both sides of his mouth. As a concerned Catholic, I would call on him to take this language out of the legal papers."
Ms. Ahearn called the bishop hypocritical.
The church made its arguments in civil cases involving the victims of two convicted abusers, Michael Hands, who as a priest sodomized a boy, and Matthew Maiello, a former youth minister who engaged in sex with a young man and three young women, separately and in combinations.
Replying to a suit from two victims, the diocese said that "the culpable conduct of the plaintiffs brought about the alleged injuries and that any award for damages for such injuries should be diminished in the proportion that the plaintiffs' culpable conduct bears to all culpable conduct which brought about the alleged damages."
Similarly, replying to a suit from a mother and father and their molested son, the diocese said that the parents were partly responsible.
The legal papers did not specify how the victims or the parents contributed to the abuses, or to what extent.
"They're saying that victims somehow allowed or encouraged their own abuse, which is a horrific thing to say," said Michael Dowd, the lawyer who filed both suits in State Supreme Court in Garden City. "And to suggest to the parents that they were negligent for allowing a priest to befriend their family is obscene."
He noted that Bishop Murphy promised last month to handle court cases "in a responsible and upright manner."
The diocese's lawyer, Brian R. Davey, did not return calls seeking an explanation of the claims. When the diocese was asked, it did not explain the disputed passages but issued this statement from Bishop Murphy:
"The diocese will act properly with regard to legal actions against it and will have to respond legally to legal issues. We do so without ever ceasing to offer therapy and pastoral care to any and every victim regardless of whether or not an individual is involved in litigation with the diocese. We do so regardless of what the press may allege or others may claim. We do so because we are concerned to heal and not to exploit those who already have suffered."
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