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  '98 Abuse Allegation in Diocese Disclosed

By Joel Engelhardt
Palm Beach Post [Florida]
September 6, 2002

A retired priest was accused of inappropriate sexual contact with a Palm Beach County teenager in 1998, a fact acknowledged at the time by a high-level Palm Beach Diocese administrator in a letter to the victim's family.

But the accusation has never been made public, even when the diocese's interim leader, the Rev. James Murtagh, assured parishioners in April that there had been "no determination of sexual abuse of minors by any member of the clergy through the 18 years of the history of the diocese."

Murtagh reviewed the personnel files of all active priests and, in an extraordinary move, showed them to a lay panel to restore faith in the diocese in the wake of Bishop Anthony O'Connell's resignation in March. O'Connell was the second bishop in four years forced out of the diocese over decades-old sexual misconduct.

At the time Murtagh reviewed the files, he said, he didn't know about the case of Edwin Collins, a priest who retired to Wellington in 1994 from the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y. Collins was accused in 1998 of inappropriately touching a 13- or 14-year-old boy who spent the night at his home before a fishing outing.

Collins assisted with Mass and confession at St. Matthew Catholic Church on Hypoluxo Road east of Jog Road until 1998. Murtagh had not reviewed Collins' file because he no longer served in the diocese.

Murtagh said he did not learn of the incident until this year when the boy's father called to express doubt about Murtagh's blanket statement describing the diocese's clean record.

But Murtagh said his April statement was worded carefully to include the phrase "no determination of sexual abuse," which applied in the boy's case because no investigation had been conducted. Additionally, the victim's initial report came in the confidential setting of spiritual counseling, Murtagh said.

In an April interview, Murtagh went beyond his "no determination" comment. When asked specifically whether the files contained any allegations, justified or not, he said, "No, no, no, nope."

However, Murtagh and the lay panel did not review every file. They looked only at the files of active priests and files involving settlements, he said. That means the files of transferred, retired or deceased priests have never been scrutinized.

Additionally, in the past, diocesan rules did not allow reporting criminal matters shared during spiritual counseling. They do now, though, Murtagh said. Confession, however, remains confidential.

Murtagh, who will turn over leadership of the diocese to newly appointed Bishop Sean O'Malley on Oct. 19, pointed to a statement he issued to parishioners in June, apparently after receiving the call from the victim's father. In it, he drew a distinction for reports of sexual abuse made in confidence.

"I regret my previous statement that in the history of the diocese we had no determination of sexual abuse of a minor by a member of the clergy. While this is true, it is insensitive to those who could have dealt with this within a counseling situation or in another manner, and it would not have been brought forward for reporting and investigation," Murtagh wrote.

But in efforts to restore trust, such hair-splitting should be condemned, said church benefactor Ed Ricci, who has called for Murtagh's resignation over the handling of previous sex-related matters.

"You can't restore trust when you have people in positions of authority who have engaged in this kind of deceit," Ricci said. "This is unfortunately another example of what happens when you don't put truth first."

The parents of the boy initially refused to press charges but someone reported the incident to the state attorney's office in late May, spokesman Mike Edmondson said.

Just a few days later, on June 4, the lay panel issued its report. It concluded that there had been no abuse of minors but outlined six cases of clergy sexually abusing adults, resulting in $738,000 in settlement payments over 18 years. A separate sexual harassment case involving adults was settled for $185,000.

The state attorney forwarded the complaint involving the teenage boy to the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, including a copy of a letter written to the victim's family by the diocese's vicar general, the second most important official after the bishop.

While Murtagh served as vicar general under the diocese's first bishop, Thomas Dailey, and its third, O'Connell, he was not in that post in 1998 under Bishop J. Keith Symons.

The vicar general at the time, the Rev. Charles Hawkins, wrote in his August 1998 letter to the victim's family that Collins had resigned from all priestly ministry and the incident had been reported to his former diocese in Rockville Centre.

The sheriff's report also notes that Collins, who could not be reached late Wednesday or Thursday for comment, underwent a one-week evaluation in Virginia.

The letter, Murtagh said, pointed out that the family wished the matter to remain private.

"I would like to confirm that you have instructed me, under the clergy privilege as provided by Florida law, not to report this activity to criminal authorities," Hawkins wrote. "Please be assured that if you change your intention, I will have it reported immediately."

The letter remained hidden as Murtagh conducted a review of priests' files in March and it was not presented to retired Circuit Judge Edward Rodgers, who reviewed files on behalf of the lay panel charged with restoring the church's credibility.

"If I had seen that, that would have been included in my report," Rodgers said.

In its June investigation, the sheriff's office learned that the family still did not want to press charges. Investigators concluded that the statute of limitations had expired. They labeled the incident simple battery, not molestation.

The report says the boy knew Collins from his work at St. Matthew. Their friendship developed around fishing at the Lake Worth pier, the report said. At Christmas, Collins gave the boy a 14-foot skiff he said he no longer needed.

Since the boy had no car, he relied on Collins to tow the boat to the fishing spot. On four or five occasions, the boy slept at Collins' home before going fishing, the report said. One night, the boy fell asleep while watching a movie in Collins' bed, the boy told investigators.

He woke up with Collins' hand between his legs, the report said. The boy hit Collins, grabbed a phone and called his father, who picked him up. Collins also shared a Playboy magazine with the boy, which is a third-degree felony, the report said.

During an interview with detectives, Collins said he found four or five coins on the bed where the boy slept and tried to put them in the pocket of the boy's shorts. The boy woke up, got out of bed and left, Collins told investigators. He said he did not touch or fondle the boy.

He said he resigned because of the impropriety of a young boy spending the night at his house. He has not returned to the pier or allowed a child in his house since 1998, the report said.

Collins, 73, said he retired because of back and knee problems, which contributed to his decision to leave St. Matthew. He was ordained a priest in 1954.

Rockville Centre allowed at least seven priests to leave since 1979 after allegations of sexual abuse, according to published reports. Five came to Florida, including two to the Palm Beach Diocese: Matthew Fitzgerald and Peter Duvelsdorf, both subsequently stripped of their right to perform as priests because of sex-related allegations.

Former state Senate President Phil Lewis, who chaired the diocese's 17-member lay panel, expressed dismay over the new allegation and bitterness toward the practice of moving suspected priests from place to place.

"New York sure hasn't helped us, sending us all their problem priests," Lewis said.

Staff writer Michelle Mundy and researcher Sammy Alzofon contributed to this story.

 
 

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