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  Case Missed in Review of Priests' Files
Cleric Resigned after Boy Alleged Misconduct

Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL)
September 7, 2002

It was one of the cases the Diocese of Palm Beach seemed to have handled the right way.

A young Lake Worth teenager who fought off a priest's sexual advances got an audience with a top administrator, who called the cleric into his office and immediately accepted his resignation, according to sheriff's reports. The family did not want the police called or the matter investigated, but that did not stop the diocese's vicar general from writing a detailed letter recording the incident and offering to report the Rev. Edwin Collins' behavior to police if the family ever changed its mind.

Four years after Collins' quick retreat into retirement, his actions that summer day have come back to haunt a diocese in turmoil.

Not because of the way local officials dealt with Collins, but because the boy's allegation -- and Collins' alleged admission -- was not unearthed in a lay panel's thorough review of priests' files this summer.

"If we talk about openness, it should [be] across the board," said the Rev. Brian Horgan, parochial vicar of St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic Church in Delray Beach. "There was some error, some mistake, a misunderstanding was made [by not bringing the incident to light before]. But in light of the atmosphere, in light of the environment we were in, perhaps it could have been handled differently."

The 1998 incident was brought out in June, when the boy's father took issue with a sweeping generalization made two months earlier by the Very Rev. James Murtagh, the diocese's interim leader.

Hoping to soothe a distrustful diocese that had just watched its second bishop in a row step down after admitting to sexual improprieties with minors, Murtagh had said the faithful could be confident that there had been "no determination of sex abuse" of minors by priests here.

A review panel with unfettered access to 170 priests' files later confirmed Murtagh's statement, saying there was nothing in the records that pointed to allegations of sexual misconduct involving youths.

All along, though, there was an Aug. 15, 1998, letter in Collins' file from then-Vicar General Charles E. Hawkins, saying Collins had resigned from ministry and that his behavior had been reported to his bishop in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y.

The letter was addressed to the parents of a boy, 13- or 14-years-old, who said Collins put his hand on the inside of the boy's thigh after the teen had fallen asleep watching a movie in the priest's bed. When the boy's father called Murtagh in June, Murtagh looked through Collins' file, found Hawkins' letter and forwarded it to the Sheriff's Office, which closed the case after finding that the family did not want to press charges and that the statute of limitations had expired.

On Friday, retired Judge Edward Rodgers, who led the diocese's review panel, said he never saw Hawkins' letter.

"Had I seen it, I certainly would have called it to someone's attention," Rodgers said.

Rodgers said diocese officials "insisted" the panel review all priests' files, both active and inactive. But Murtagh disputed that, saying he did not ask members to look at priests who were no longer with the diocese. That is why, he said, the letter was never found.

"What we wanted to do was assure people that there was not a priest in ministry that shouldn't be in ministry," Murtagh said, and departed priests were not relevant to that issue.

Murtagh said the Collins case does not directly contradict his earlier statement. The boy had not been abused, because he acted quickly in fending off the priest, Murtagh said. Also, a detective's report later found the act was considered simple battery not lewd assault. As an "extern priest" from New York, Collins did not technically belong to the Palm Beach Diocese, though he was celebrating Mass and taking confession at St. Matthew Catholic Church west of Lake Worth.

But Murtagh admits he was wrong in making generalizations, if only because they may seem abrasive to unknown victims. He said he won't be making such broad statements in the future.

In June, after the boy's father brought the case to his attention, Murtagh went public with his regrets. He wrote a letter to the diocese's 225,000 parishioners saying any finding of "no determination" of sex abuse was insensitive to victims who had not made their allegations public.

Next month, Murtagh will step aside to make way for the diocese's newly named bishop, Sean Patrick O'Malley, who comes with accolades over his handling of a landmark sex abuse scandal in the Fall River, Mass., Diocese.

Irene Schall, a civil attorney who serves on the Fall River sex abuse review panel, says O'Malley "doesn't play word games. He's as fair and as honest as they come."

But even he is not above making generalizations. Recently, after a panel in Fall River reviewed current priests' files, he told parishioners, "As far as we can determine, we do not have any active pedophiles" in the priesthood there, Schall said. She said O'Malley's only intention was to be forthright and sensitive.

Phil Lewis, a former state senator who served on Rodgers' review panel, said the Collins case had to be kept in perspective.

"I don't think it means anything. Nobody was trying to hide anything, I don't believe," he said. "One of the things this whole thing has taught everybody is don't send a priest with problems to work anywhere else."

 
 

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