A Pledge to Listen

By Rita Ciolli
Newsday [Long Island NY]
June 15, 2003

More than a year after the Rockville Centre Diocese was shaken by the sexual abuse scandal, Bishop William Murphy is ready to listen.

Faced with declining attendance at Mass and a 40 percent drop in his annual fund-raising, Murphy has scheduled three public listening sessions later this month, for the purpose of "fostering understanding and continued healing."

While Murphy has met privately with individuals, the meetings would provide the first opportunity for Catholics to take a microphone and express their views. The sessions will be closed to the media and the bishop won't respond to the audience.

"There will be no dialogue or debate. There will be no opportunity for that at all," said Joanne Novarro, a spokeswoman for the diocese. Murphy opted for the appearances on the recommendations of his staff and outside advisers as a way to respond to criticism that he doesn't listen to the faithful, Novarro said.

Dan Bartley, co-chairman of Long Island Voice of the Faithful, said the sessions could be an important tool if participants are allowed to speak openly. "Bishop Murphy must resist the temptation to control the issues that are raised or those who raise them," he added.

The sessions, to be announced from the altar at Masses this weekend, would be held from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. in the auditoriums of three diocesan high schools, starting at St. John the Baptist in West Islip on June 22; Mercy in Riverhead on June 23; and Most Holy Trinity in Hicksville on June 24.

Murphy, who will travel to St. Louis this week for the annual meeting of Catholic bishops, is not alone in taking church concerns public. Voice of the Faithful, which seeks a greater role in church governance on behalf of lay Catholics, held a "prayerful protest" last week at St. Joseph's Church in Babylon and is planning similar vigils at 51 other parishes in Nassau and Suffolk.

The group also is organizing a large demonstration at St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre, the symbolic center of the diocese, on June 29 to protest Murphy's refusal to recognize the group or allow it to meet on church property.

Announcement of the listening sessions came as Murphy released a written update on the local abuse scandal. In "Report to the Diocese" posted on the church's Web site, Murphy said the diocese "has responded to the challenges we faced and has handled these issues openly, honestly and responsibly." He said that since July 2002, the diocese has spent $193,000 to provide counseling for victims. From 1985 to last July, $2.3 million was spent on counseling, legal fees and some settlements.

Meanwhile, complaints, some decades old, are still being lodged against priests. On June 6 an allegation was made against Rev. George Michell, the pastor at St. Patrick's in Southold. Top diocesan officials said Michell had been placed on administrative leave because of a 20-year complaint of "inappropriate conduct."

The parishioners were told that Michell strongly denied the accusation. Michell did not return calls for comment. A spokesman for the Suffolk County district attorney's office confirmed that the diocese had referred the complaint to it.

Murphy's written report provides few new details on the status of the priests who were suspended from ministry since the scandal broke last spring. The report fails to say exactly how many priests have been suspended or the status of the disciplinary action against them.

Novarro declined to say how many cases the Diocesan Review Board has completed but said "most of them are still in the process." In April, the diocese announced that Murphy had accepted the recommendation of the review board to send two cases to the Vatican for direction on whether to proceed with a church trial.

After the formal paperwork is drawn up by church lawyers in these cases, Murphy would personally transport the material to the Vatican. "He is getting on an airplane to take these folders over. He does not want to put them in the mail and have them sit on some bureaucrat's desk in Rome," she said. "He wants to speed up the process."

Novarro said Murphy has decided not to identify the priests involved at this time. "If a person is cleared and goes back into the parish, then the parish is notified that he has been cleared," she said. She declined to say whether the names of priests who are permanently removed from ministry would be made public.

In his report, Murphy said five priests chose to retire rather than fight the allegations in a church trial. As part of that arrangement, which priests call the "plea bargain," the five priests will keep their pensions and medical coverage as well as housing, in return for agreeing to a permanent ban from exercising public ministry.

Since the ban is done through the bishop's administrative powers, Murphy said he would consider, on a case-by-case basis, letting the retired priests have the power to administer the sacraments, such as to "celebrate a family funeral."


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