Diocese May Let Lay Panel See Priest Files Five Adult Cases, $500,000 in Payments Revealed

By Joel Engelhardt
Palm Beach Post (Florida)
April 5, 2002

The interim leader of the Palm Beach Diocese, facing what he called an unprecedented attack on his integrity, lashed out Thursday at his chief critic and said he would consider opening confidential church files to review by a select lay panel.

The Rev. James Murtagh, in a 30-minute news conference and an hourlong interview with The Palm Beach Post, said the files contain five instances of improper sexual activity between priests and adults but none involving children.

Refusing to name any priests or victims, Murtagh said the five cases primarily involved relationships between priests and women but also included relationships between priests and men.

All but two, he said, involved consensual relationships gone sour. He provided no details of the two non-consensual relationships.

Since its founding in 1984, the diocese has made payments of less than $500,000 to settle claims against priests, Murtagh said, refusing to release a specific figure.

Murtagh also took responsibility for once moving an accused priest to another parish within the county after the church paid the medical bills of a woman who said he made unwanted advances toward her.

If church law allows, Murtagh said he might convene a blue-ribbon panel to review the files that track the diocese's 120-plus priests. He even suggested he would appoint to the panel his most vocal critic, West Palm Beach attorney and church benefactor Ed Ricci.

He reserved his harshest language for Ricci, who called Wednesday for Murtagh to resign or for the Vatican to remove him.

Ricci said the interim leader had not done enough to assure parents of the safety of children in the diocese since March 8, when a two-decade-old sex scandal forced the resignation of Bishop Anthony J. O'Connell.

Murtagh issued a news release suggesting that Ricci himself had something to hide.

"At a time like this, some people surface with their own agenda and Mr. Ed Ricci is a case in point," Murtagh wrote. "He is quoted as saying that he finds it disgusting that I distinguish between consensual sexual relationships with adults and sexual misconduct with minors. If he does, I wonder what planet he lives on."

Ricci responded with a news release of his own.

"Vicar Murtagh apparently thinks that all sex relationships between adult women and priests are 'consensual.' He exhibits an astonishing ignorance of sexual exploitation by persons in positions of authority. . . . His comments . . . are a slap in the face to every woman who has been sexually abused or exploited."

Thursday's escalating war of words here comes amid a time of extraordinary discontent in American Catholicism, with some lay leaders angrily assailing the church hierarchy for what they see as an ingrained practice of defending pedophile priests.

Locally, it marks a time of divisive turmoil in a diocese that has seen two of its bishops ousted by revelations of decades-old allegations of sexual abuse of teenage boys.

A similar allegation against a teacher at the St. Vincent De Paul Seminary outside Boynton Beach brought Ricci's latest protests. He was irate that Murtagh had recently claimed that no such priests served here.

Murtagh, joined by Tampa public relations specialist Jim Frankowiak, said the diocese goes to some lengths to screen out such priests but can be foiled by human nature.

Sometimes, as in the case of O'Connell's appointment to the Palm Beach Diocese, "Things will fall through the cracks," he said.

When victims come forward, he said, the church is occasionally forced to tap its insurance policy to pay psychiatric medical costs, regardless of whether the claims are merited.

"In these 'he said/she said' situations you can't prove anything. But nevertheless we'll be very sensitive to the claim and that person who needed counseling," Murtagh said.

The Irish-born priest, ordained in 1966, said he reviewed all of the priests' files during his first week as interim leader. The files do not include priests working at the seminary, where Murtagh served for 12 years before moving to Holy Name of Jesus Parish in West Palm Beach. He stayed there for 17 years before recently moving to St. Ann parish in downtown West Palm Beach.

Murtagh, 66, has been a key player within the diocesan hierarchy as well. He served as chancellor to the diocese's first bishop, Thomas Daily, who became embroiled in Boston's sex scandal when it was revealed he moved a pedophile priest from parish to parish decades ago.

When Daily left in 1990, diocesan priests appointed Murtagh to fill in until the appointment of J. Keith Symons as bishop. He served as Symons' chancellor for one year and returned as vicar general, the No. 2 position in the diocese, after Symons' ouster in 1998. He held that post under O'Connell.

It was his decision as interim leader in 1990 to return the Rev. Frank Flynn to the county that drew Ricci's greatest wrath.

Ricci said he represented a prominent parishioner who made allegations against Flynn as early as 1982 but the church took no action. When a second woman underwent electroshock therapy after a relationship with Flynn, Daily removed Flynn as pastor at St. Ignatius Loyola and sent him away for treatment, Murtagh said.

Doctors cleared him to return and after a short stint as an assistant pastor in Sebastian, Murtagh said he brought Flynn back in 1990 as pastor at Sacred Heart Church in Lake Worth. He didn't last, though. Another woman came forward, and Flynn was dismissed in 1997.

During all that time, Ricci could have publicized his complaints against Flynn but didn't, Murtagh said.

"He is personally involved in the cases cited in the press. He has known the details, the facts and the names for 15 years. Why doesn't he publish them?" Murtagh said in his statement.

Responded Ricci, who has threatened to withdraw his six-figure donation to his Jupiter parish if the diocese doesn't take action to safeguard itself from pedophile priests: "He just doesn't get it. This is not about me. I have no personal agenda. This is about protecting the innocent from sexual predators."


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