Bishop's Appeal Latest Flash Point between Long Island Group and Diocese

By Frank Eltman
Associated Press, carried in
January 18, 2003

GARDEN CITY, N.Y. -- A group that organized last year in response to the priest sex scandals is withholding its endorsement of the Rockville Centre diocese's $15 million fund-raising appeal.

The Long Island Voice of the Faithful had offered to help the diocese with the appeal _ on condition church leaders open their books. But this week the proposal was rejected as unnecessary by Bishop William Murphy, the spiritual leader of Long Island's 1.5 million Roman Catholics.

The Voice of the Faithful has suggested its members could bypass the church hierarchy and donate directly to local charities or parishes. It has established an alternative fund called Voice of Compassion, which will distribute money to charities supported by the church.

The exchange highlights a rift between the diocese and the Voice of the Faithful, which claims more 1,000 members who are otherwise active in Long Island's 134 parishes. The divide, triggered by the sex scandal, has grown to include fund-raising, finances and even the group's meeting place.

The Voice of the Faithful wrote to Murphy last month seeking a meeting "to discuss the meaning of financial openness and to agree upon a procedure for how this can be accomplished. We have financial experts ready, willing and able to assist you and your experts in this endeavor."

The Rev. Msgr. Robert J. Brennan, writing on behalf of Murphy, responded that the fund-raising appeal "will function this year as in prior years, through the parish committees who are responsible to the pastor." He noted the Diocesan Finance Council is composed of five lay people and one religious appointee.

"We cannot let the difficulties of the past paralyze our life together this year and in the years to come, especially when we have all worked to correct our past deficiencies," Brennan wrote.

Dan Bartley, co-director of the Long Island Voice of the Faithful, said that while the response "appears to fall short of the full financial openness ... hopefully this represents a first step toward moving in that direction." He added that until more concrete steps are taken toward financial openness "we will reserve our endorsement of this year's appeal."

The appeal, which last year brought in $14.7 million, is used to fund various diocesan functions, including religious education, Catholic Charities and pastoral ministries, said diocesan spokeswoman Joanne Novarro. The fund-raising goal this year is $15 million.

"Economic times are a little harder and the bishop recognizes that people may not have as much to give," Novarro said. "But the work of the diocese has to go on."

In its letter to Murphy, the Voice of the Faithful predicted the sex scandals would hurt donations. There are no allegations the Rockville Centre diocese has paid off victims to keep silent about abuse, but critics nationwide say limits on financial disclosure have allowed dioceses elsewhere to make such payments.

"Many Catholics are angered and disturbed by undue secrecy on the part of our spiritual leaders," the group said. "We are convinced that complete financial openness is the path to success for this year's Bishop's Annual Appeal."

Novarro disagreed with the group's assertion.

"This diocese has handled the sex abuse problems pretty well," she said. "Bishop Murphy has said no priest found to have engaged in sexual abuse will serve as a priest in this diocese. We feel that we have done what is needed to be done."

The Voice of the Faithful was founded last spring in Boston in response to the scandals there, and has quickly spread to parishes across the country. Although the Boston scandals received the most attention _ Cardinal Bernard Law resigned last year in response _ Long Island Catholics have dealt with their own abuse revelations.

The Rev. Michael Hands, who has pleaded guilty to sex abuse charges involving a teenage boy in two different Long Island churches, was ordered held on $1 million bail this week after prosecutors suspected him of accessing pornographic Web sites.

Hands claims he was abused by a Long Island priest when he was a teenager.

A Suffolk County grand jury is investigating the church leadership's handling of the scandal.

Murphy, who worked for Law in Boston before joining the Rockville Centre diocese in 2001, is expected to testify Feb. 12 before a Boston grand jury examining the sex abuse scandal there.

More than 800 people attended a meeting of the Voice of the Faithful earlier this month at North Babylon High School. Murphy has banned the group from meeting on church property, saying it would be "divisive to the life of the church."

At that meeting, Kevin Connors, a member of group's finance committee, told the gathering that "Catholics seek reform. They seek a lifting of the wall of secrecy. ... Bishop Murphy, tear down that wall of secrecy, and let the healing begin."


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