Unholy Acts and Alliances Line

By Denise Civiletti
Riverhead (NY) News-Review Online
February 13, 2003

With the district attorney's release Monday of a special grand jury's 180-page report detailing alleged sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests in Suffolk County, the magnitude of the scandal that's rocked the American Catholic Church hit home.

At least five priests who'd served at four different East End parishes were among the priests whose alleged sordid, if not criminal, activities were detailed in the grand jury report, according to Bishop Emil Wcela, vicar of the Eastern Vicariate of the Diocese of Rockville Centre since 1989.

The grand jury heard the testimony of 97 witnesses after it was impaneled in May 2002. Its report is an indictment of the policies and procedures of the diocese, which is alleged to have undertaken a deliberate cover-up of the scandal brewing for decades. The grand jury returned no criminal indictments, however, only because of statutes of limitations on prosecuting sex offenses in New York State.

In detailing the charges against 23 priests, the special grand jury did not reveal their identities, the identities of their accusers, or the names of the parishes at which the alleged events occurred.

But Bishop Wcela acknowledged that four of the five priests serving in the Eastern Vicariate were profiled in the grand jury report.

Two priests who "were helping out on weekends at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Mattituck," were the subject of sex abuse allegations, including the Rev. Brian McKeon, identified as "Priest C" in the grand jury report. Bishop Wcela said the allegations did not involve events that took place in Mattituck, however, and he declined to identify the other priest.

A former pastor at St. John the Evangelist Church in Riverhead, the Rev. Jim Bergen, is also alleged to have sexually abused children in his care, though none of the accusations against Fr. Bergen to date have involved children at St. John's. Fr. Bergen passed away in 1987, said the bishop.

Father Joseph Mundy, a former pastor at St. John the Baptist in Wading River, is identified as "Priest A" in the report. He has left the priesthood.

Fr. Andrew Millar, who served at Sts. Peter and Paul in Manorville, was accused of sex abuse while at a parish in Nassau County, according to Bishop Wcela. "He was sent away for treatment and then sent to Manorville," Bishop Wcela said. "While there, he was caught abusing a boy in a public bathroom at Jones Beach." Fr. Millar went to jail for that, the bishop said.

As the vicar overseeing the 40 parishes in the eastern half of Suffolk County, where Roman Catholics number about 350,000 people, Bishop Wcela admitted he was aware of allegations of past abuse against priests who were transferred to parishes in his vicariate.

"I had known that there were allegations against Fr. McKeon and the other priest in Mattituck," he said. "I was told they had gone away for treatment. As far as I knew, things were taken care of." The same was true of Fr. Millar. Bishop Wcela said he'd heard that the charges made against Fr. Mundy had later been withdrawn by the alleged victim and his parents. "Since then, their story has changed," he said.

District Attorney Thomas Spota accused the diocese of a well-orchestrated cover-up that included a fund established to pay sex abuse claims, funded by $5,000 and $10,000 annual assessments levied on local parishes. Mr. Spota said there was $11 million in that fund as of Oct. 2002. Bishop Wcela said he was aware of the existence of the fund, which he said had been established in the mid 1980s. "I think we all know about that," he said.

The church's response to the allegations "is not as ineffective as it's been presented" by the district attorney, said the bishop. "But we need to learn from what the grand jury report says, and see to it that our processes are improved. When there are allegations, they must be reported and dealt with."

Bishop Wcela spoke of the pain and difficulty he has personally experienced since the scandal became public. He said his personal response to the crisis is to "keep living the Christian life as best I can and let that be a witness in some way." He maintains that "in spite of these things, the truths of Christianity and Jesus Christ are still there and we hold onto them in spite of the failings of those who try to present and teach them."

For the most part, he believes, Catholics remain supportive. "I was waiting for a red light at Route 58, by the Hess station," he said. "I stopped to let another car in. [The car] pulled over in front of me and a man got out and came running back toward me. I was wearing the Roman collar," the bishop explained, "and I thought I was going to get blasted. But he came over to my car and said, 'I want you to know I'm with you, Father.' "

Other priests have been confronted in public, the bishop said. "People are angry, but most people understand that this involves a very small percentage of the Catholic clergy, as shocking as it is," he said.

Bruce Tria, general manager at WRIV in Riverhead, describes himself as "a fatal Catholic," who teaches CCD at his church and coordinates the youth group there. He says he's shocked not just by the sex abuse allegations but by the way the diocese went about covering up the allegations.

"It would seem that the church had a public plan, and then there was a plan that the public didn't know about, and that was a disgrace," said Mr. Tria. "Personally, I think the church should be forced to report any and all instances of abuse on a kid to law enforcement, period. While God forgives all sinners, society has an obligation to protect its children. Covering it up doesn't protect them." As much as it angers him, the situation has not driven him from the Catholic faith. "It speaks to me," he said.

Jim Christie, director of guidance at Mattituck High School and also a lifelong Catholic, echoed those sentiments. "My beliefs are not at all in question," he said. "I still strongly believe in the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. But we need to look at the structure and the management of the church to see how something like this could have occurred and to see how it can be prevented from ever reoccurring."

Mr. Christie has attended meetings of a local Voice of the Faithful group on the North Fork, an organization formed by Catholic lay people in response to the nationwide scandal. Allan Connell of Southold, who has acted as a spokesman for the group, was out of town and could not be reached for comment on the grand jury report. Mr. Christie declined to speak for the group. Personally, he said, the scandal has not affected his family's "parish life" or their willingness to give money to the church. "We are still actively involved," Mr. Christie said. "It hasn't shaken our confidence in our parish or our pastor."


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