L.I. Diocese Adding Laypeople to Panel on Priestly Abuse

By Elissa Gootman
New York Times
April 25, 2002

Uniondale, NY – The bishop of the Rockville Centre Roman Catholic Diocese announced today that non-Catholics and law enforcement experts, including a former Nassau County police commissioner, would help handle future allegations of sexual abuse by priests.

Bishop William Murphy said that in changing the way allegations are dealt with, he hoped to restore Catholics' trust in their spiritual leaders.

"The church must be a beacon of hope and trust," he said. "That beacon has been dimmed."

The bishop's remarks came as American cardinals met with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican to discuss a zero-tolerance approach, in which priests involved in a single case of abuse would be dismissed. Closer to home, officials in the Diocese of Paterson, N.J., suspended three priests because of sexual abuse allegations that they said had come to light in the past 10 days. Also today, the Archdiocese of New York said it would release sexual abuse victims from confidentiality agreements reached as part of civil settlements.

Speaking to reporters at the diocese's television studio here, Bishop Murphy said that he was not aware of the archdiocese's decision but that as he developed new procedures for sexual abuse cases, "I will be considering each and every suggestion that has been made."

In a speech that was to be televised on a local cable station, Bishop Murphy said he would end a policy in which some abusive priests who undergo therapy are placed in "restricted ministry," meaning that they can serve as pastors so long as they do not work with children or teenagers.

"As a bishop I will not do this," he said. "If a priest is not able to care pastorally for children and minors without placing them at risk, then that priest cannot do any kind of pastoral ministry whatsoever. He will not ever be given any ministry here in this diocese or in any other diocese so long as I am your bishop."

While previous allegations were handled by a panel of priests, Bishop Murphy announced that in the future, a new "pastoral intervention team" would address all reports of abuse. The team will consist of the Rev. Robert J. Batule, who has served as associate pastor at three Long Island churches and as chairman of the Catholic Youth Organization of Nassau and Suffolk; Sister Sean Foley, a member of the Brooklyn region of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas who is also a practicing psychotherapist; and Donald F. Kane, who retired as Nassau County police commissioner two years ago.

As the team deals with complaints and passes information to law enforcement officials, a review board will examine every case and recommend whether an accused priest should be allowed to return to the ministry, the bishop said.

The review board now includes a psychiatrist and a social worker; in the future, Bishop Murphy said, it will include another psychiatrist and a social work expert, both non-Catholics, as well as parents, a priest and two law enforcement experts. The number of members has not been finalized.

"Only when I have received a report that the priest is innocent of the charges, and I have received the assessment that there is no psychiatric pathology, and after I have been informed that the priest has been cleared by the review board will I consider returning that innocent priest to pastoral ministry," Bishop Murphy said. "I pledge that I will never be more lenient than the review board, though I may be more stringent."

Bishop Murphy said his interest in rooting out errant priests dates to September, when he began his assignment on Long Island.

"I personally read every file that had an allegation of sexual misconduct against a minor," he said. "If a priest with such an allegation in his personnel file was still in any kind of ministry, he, too, was immediately removed from that ministry."

Critics have said the diocese transferred abusive priests in the past, and the Suffolk district attorney is investigating whether cases of abuse were covered up. The bishop said he did not believe that the diocese tried to cover up sexual abuse cases but would cooperate with prosecutors.

Meanwhile, officials with the Paterson Diocese said that after learning of allegations against three priests, they have suspended the Rev. Allen Stepien, pastor of St. Mark the Evangelist in Long Valley, N.J.; the Rev. Ralph Sodano, pastor of Our Lady of the Mountain in Schooleys Mountain, N.J.; and the Rev. Absalom Coutinho, who served at the Annunciation Church in Wayne, N.J., before moving to an out-of-state diocese in 1998.

The allegations against Father Stepien date back 20 years and the accusations against Father Sodano are about 25 years old, officials said.

In New York City, the spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, Joseph Zwilling, said the decision to release sexual abuse victims from confidentiality clauses was prompted by requests from the Westchester district attorney, Jeanine F. Pirro. "We're trying to cooperate with the district attorneys," Mr. Zwilling said.

[Photo caption: "The church must be a beacon of hope and trust," Bishop William Murphy of the Rockville Centre Roman Catholic Diocese said in a speech yesterday in Uniondale, N.Y. "That beacon has been dimmed." (Nancy Siesel/The New York Times)]


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