St. Martin's Monsignor Removed from Post by Diocese: Bishop’s Decision

By Carolyn James
Babylon (NY) Beacon
May 16, 2002

[Photo Caption-Bishop William Murphy as he announces the Diocese's new policy regarding the handling of cases of suspected sexual abuse by priests.]

The reading at St. Martin of Tour’s Mass on Sunday was a letter from St. Peter. It said: “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks for a reason for your hope. It is better to suffer for doing good than for doing evil."

Those words, as well as words from Rev. Richard T. Stelter, the parish’s associate pastor, helped to resolve some of the fear, anger and concern of parishioners who had learned just days before that St. Martin’s Pastor, Rev. Msgr. Robert J. Saccacio, had been removed from the church and stripped of his priestly duties by the Diocese of Rockville Centre. The actions by the Diocese were prompted by the discovery of a claim of sexual abuse made against Saccacio in 1961, the year he was ordained. They are on record as allegations only, and carry no judgments about the veracity of the claim, said Stelter.

In speaking to those gathered for 10:30 a.m. mass, Stelter talked about the broader crisis within the Church, but added that it has now hit home. "We are living in difficult times; the Church is living through a dark period and these dark times have come to our parish," he said, adding later that while the parish has been praying for the church as a whole, it now must also turn its prayers "to our own parish in a real way.

"There is grief and sadness in Msg. Saccacio’s leaving and people in our parish who are fond of him and knew the good work he did will miss him," he said. "There is an atmosphere of sadness and grief encompassing our parish at this time."

Stelter, who was appointed acting administrator until the Diocese selects a new Pastor, said he will not be able to place anyone in contact with Saccacio, but that the church will be collecting cards and letters, which will be sent to him.

Meanwhile, parishioners at St. Martin’s expressed their feelings in different ways.

"I am basically concerned for the children and whether they are going to be okay in the aftermath of all of this," said one woman who came to the Mass with her young daughter.

"All I can say is that we remember him in our prayers," said Joan Corcoran, another parishioner.

Others were not as understanding about the allegations against the church in general. Daniel Corcoran said he was angry over the church’s cover up. As a father of four. and grandfather of 11, he called the church’s actions, "terrible."

In his statement to the parish, Stelter, outlined the series of events leading up to Saccacio’s dismissal. He said he arrived home at the parish from his day off on Friday, April 26 and was met by the Monsignor who told him that he had received a call from the Diocese of Rockville Center, informing him of the allegations made against him and that he was being removed. At that time, however, the Diocese asked that Stelter not discuss the issue with the parishioners because they wanted to consider carefully how to handle it.

The following week Stelter was notified by the Diocese that the story would hit the newspapers. "I learned that it would be made public before today and that I would not have an opportunity to speak to you," he told the parishioners. "We regret that and find that unfortunate because we wished and hoped you would be able to hear this first from us today, rather than read about it in the newspapers."

The Diocese recently enacted sweeping new changes in the way it handles these cases. The changes are designed to effectively confront cases where children have been abused by priests, said William Murphy the Bishop of Rockville Center Diocese, to ensure that every case is promptly and independently acted upon. In making his announcement, Bishop Murphy said such allegations, if true, are a betrayal of the trust that everyone has a right to expect. "It is a crime that cries to heaven for reparation," he said. "It is a violation of the solemn promises a priest has made to God and a destructive cancer that threatens to erode the inner life of the Church."

The Monsignor has responded to the Diocese’s decision by asking for early retirement, a decision the Diocese has not acted upon yet. "As you may know, he was looking to retire in a few short years," said Stelter, "He feels this is the best way to handle it for the parish and the people."

"This doesn’t shake my faith," said Celia Greg as she left church on Sunday. "The Church is made up of people and people are not perfect."

"This is very difficult to understand," said another parishioner who asked that her name not be used. "The ones who committed these atrocities are the ones that knew these things happened and didn’t do anything about it, but the pendulum has swung too far. It just seems to me like a drastic thing to do to someone based only on an allegation of more than 40 years ago; someone who has been doing good work and whose reputation is now destroyed."

Another parishioner said she found the allegations hard to believe. "He has been an inspiration and has done many good things for this parish," said Carla Levin. "I just think that sometimes some of the allegations have come from money hungry people who try to get involved in a lawsuit."

"I have known him for years, have worked by his side, gone on trips with him and never, never, would I ever believe something like this," said Tom O’Neill, another parishioner.

As in St. Paul’s letter, Stelter left the parishioners with a message of hope. In discussing the crisis in general, he said, "The church has faced darkness many times in the past, but we need to remember that the light of Christ conquers darkness. It is the light guiding our way; the light that helps us, and helps us guide one another."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.