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  Sex Claims Came Only from Adults, Bishop Says

By Nicole Sterghos Brochu and Marian Dozier
Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL)
March 28, 2002

While the Diocese of Palm Beach has never had to investigate or settle claims of priests abusing minors, it has confronted allegations and paid settlements over the years to adult women accusing priests of sexual misconduct, the Very Rev. James Murtagh said on Wednesday.

In a 30-minute interview with the Sun-Sentinel, Murtagh in his role as acting bishop sought to dispel misconceptions and reassure the public that the beleaguered diocese is doing what it can to keep out of its ranks priests who prey on children and adolescents.

Despite revelations that two of the diocese's three bishops admitted molesting adolescent boys early in their careers in other states, Murtagh said he has seen no evidence that any clergy abused minors while in the Palm Beach Diocese.

He concedes, though, that silence does not mean the absence of abuse, saying he cannot say with conviction that no priest in the Palm Beach diocese has molested minors -- only that he doesn't know of any and none has been settled financially.

If such conduct has taken place, he said, he urges victims to come forward with their stories so the diocese can take care of the problem.

"We are uptight," Murtagh said, "and so is everybody, and rightfully so, about the abuse of minors."

But it is not abuse of young boys but adult women that has been this diocese's biggest problem.

Over the years, the diocese has settled "not numerous but some" claims of sexual misconduct involving adult women with monetary payments. And more than one priest has been drummed out of the ministry for such conduct, Murtagh said.

Murtagh said the distinction between philandering clergymen and priests who prey on children is essential: One is morally wrong, and the other is illegal.

"Adults we have to deal with, because that's going to go on in all of society," Murtagh said of the diocese's periodic problem with priests accused of engaging in sexual misconduct with adult women. "There's no way ... to stop it. But we certainly have to put in strong safeguards as far as minors are concerned."

CASES AGAINST DIOCESE

It is a distinction that inflamed West Palm Beach attorney and prominent Catholic benefactor Edward Ricci, whose disgust over Bishop Anthony J. O'Connell's resignation two weeks ago has him pondering withdrawing his financial support of the church.

"That is an unfortunate but typical comment that discriminates against women," said Ricci, who has represented women who have made successful claims of abuse against the Palm Beach diocese. "That's a disgusting comment for him to make. It's an insult to every woman in the diocese. But it's typical of the attitude of the Catholic church toward women. They treat them like second-class citizens."

One of Ricci's cases against the diocese is also typical of how the church handles priests who abuse their power, he said.

In 1987, Ricci confronted the diocese's then-bishop, Thomas V. Daily, with his client's accusation that her priest, the Rev. Frank Flynn, tried to seduce her while he was rector at St. Ignatius Loyola Cathedral in Palm Beach Gardens.

Ricci said Daily "whitewashed" the incident and moved Flynn to Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Lake Worth. Daily remembers it differently. Reached at the Diocese of Brooklyn, where Daily is now bishop, his spokesman, Frank DeRosa, said Daily remembers removing Flynn as rector at St. Ignatius and sending him to psychological counseling.

"To the best of the bishop's recollection," DeRosa said, Daily was told by psychologists that Flynn could return to parish ministry. So he sent him to a parish in Sebastian, in the northern part of the diocese, to work under the supervision of another priest.

After Daily's departure to Brooklyn in 1990, when the Palm Beach Diocese was in the hands of Bishop J. Keith Symons, Flynn was moved to Sacred Heart, DeRosa said.

In 1991, Ricci said, a psychiatrist came to him with information that another woman had been seduced by Flynn the night before her father's funeral. The incident sent the woman into a nervous breakdown, and the diocese later paid $55,000 for shock treatment therapy.

When Ricci confronted Symons with the information, he said the bishop did nothing. Only in 1993, when another woman surfaced to say Flynn seduced her while her husband was dying of cancer, did Flynn leave the diocese and move to Ireland, Ricci said.

Flynn could not be reached for comment, and neither could Symons, who resigned in disgrace in 1997 as Palm Beach bishop after admitting to fondling five altar boys early in his 40-year career. Five years after Symons stepped down, O'Connell, too, admitted fondling teenage boys in the 1970s.

CHURCH POLICIES

Murtagh, who has been with the Palm Beach Diocese since its inception, said he was not making excuses for any type of priest abuse -- whether the victim is an adult or a child.

When adults have stepped forward to accuse priests and other diocese personnel of sexual abuse, investigations are conducted and the accused are sent to counseling, he said.

The diocese has made financial settlements with payments from its insurance company to adult victims, Murtagh said, and in especially serious cases, the diocese has revoked priests' pastoral privileges.

"We cannot have people working in the church who have behaved immorally," he said.

He could not estimate how much the diocese has paid out in insurance money over the years, nor could he say how many priests were removed from the ministry over allegations of misconduct.

But he said he was relieved that no cases of abuse involving minors have surfaced in his diocese. He made the distinction that Rocco D'Angelo's documented widespread abuse of young boys in South Florida predated the Palm Beach Diocese's inception in 1984, when it was carved out of the larger Archdiocese of Miami.

That the diocese also hasn't had to settle cases of abuse against minors, as it has against adults, is a testament to the effectiveness of the policies and procedures in place to protect children, Murtagh said.

Those policies require criminal background checks of all priests, seminarians, lay personnel and volunteers with access to children. And all incoming priests must have a "certificate of aptitude" signed by their previous bishop saying they have clearance to continue working in the ministry.

Another part of the procedure manual has not had to be used, Murtagh said: a 17-year-old policy appointing a team of four or five lay leaders and clergy members to investigate any claims of abuse of minors.

"We've never had to activate it, thanks be to God," Murtagh said. "There's no way a priest who molested minors would be allowed to work in this ministry."

Though some priests have -- the Rev. Anthony Failla in Boca Raton before his priest realized he didn't have the proper paperwork, and the Rev. Peter Duvelsdorf with the permission of his prior bishop -- Murtagh said "there are always going to be things that get through that shouldn't."

When asked whether he is content that the diocese's policy is effective enough, Murtagh said, "We're always looking for ways to improve, and we will [improve]." But he didn't say what steps are being explored or considered.

 
 

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