An Apology for the Sins of the Past

By Rita Ciolli
February 13, 2003

In his first personal response to the blistering Suffolk grand jury report, Bishop William F. Murphy pledged to deal "openly, honestly and responsibly" with the "horrific scandal" of sexual abuse by priests on Long Island, according to a statement posted Wednesday on the diocesan Web site.

Murphy said the church's failure "to deal with this properly in the past will remain with us a long time. It has had a deep effect on our relationships with our brother priests, the lay faithful and the wider community. I can only repeat what I have tried to say throughout the last year that I am deeply sorry for this failure ... "

His comments come as the findings of the report continue to cause repercussions in every corner of the Diocese of Rockville Centre. Some priests said they were struggling with finding a way at their weekend services to address the revelations of abuse and cover-up. Voice of the Faithful, the grassroots group seeking more involvement in church governance, has scrapped its original agenda for a meeting Thursday night at North Babylon High School and instead will discuss the report's financial disclosures and recommendations for new state laws.

Meanwhile, a tribute and photo of Msgr. Charles Ribaudo was removed from the Hall of Fame listing on the Web site of Holy Trinity High School, where the grand jury report said he molested students while he was chaplain in the 1970s and 1980s. The action was taken in response to a complaint from an alumna of the Hicksville school.

Murphy wrote his six-page message to Long Island's Catholics from Boston, where he spent the past few days preparing for his appearance Wednesday before a Massachusetts grand jury investigating the abuse scandal there. Murphy's statement also appears as a column in this week's Long Island Catholic. The weekly newspaper also reported on the grand jury and printed as news articles the press releases it issued on Monday.

In his column, Murphy said the anger of the laity and the feeling of betrayal and abandonment among priests over the abuse scandal has been made worse by the negative perceptions of him. Murphy suggested that his "character" was at variance "from what you have known after the quarter century of the pastoral style and leadership of Bishop John McGann, one of your own." Murphy, who came to Long Island in September 2001, said that as "an import from Boston" he is automatically suspect. But he said there is "no evidence" that he acted inappropriately in handling cases of priests accused of sexually abusing minors in Boston.

Murphy also makes a veiled reference to the controversy about the almost-$1-million private residence he built on the third floor of the former convent on the grounds of St. Agnes Cathedral. Despite his working "tirelessly" for the diocese, Murphy said, opinions about him have yet to change. "I know my many defects," he said. "Greed and sumptuous lifestyle are not among them."

In a reference to his refusal to allow Voice of the Faithful to meet on church property, Murphy said, "While I do not apologize for decisions I made which were done solely for the good of the unity of the Church, I do apologize if these decisions seem to some to be arbitrary or have caused anger, upset or hurt."

In addressing the priest scandal, Murphy said that since his arrival, he and other officials of the Diocese of Rockville Centre have acted correctly in every instance.

Most of the abuse and its cover-up occurred during the tenure of McGann, although there is almost no reference to the deceased bishop in the grand jury report.

Murphy also sought to assure priests -- many of whom are upset by what they consider his insensitive handling of those accused of abuse -- that their brothers will be fairly treated under church law. "They, like everyone, will always be treated with the dignity to which every human being is entitled."

However, the bishop restated his determination not to readmit any priests accused of molestation to pastoral ministry. If a priest is eventually found innocent by a church tribunal, then, Murphy said, "I will make a decision with them about their future."

Those accused priests who are eligible to retire will receive their pensions and those on disability will be covered by insurance, Murphy said. For those who are voluntarily leaving the priesthood, the diocese will financially help them make the transition to private life, he said.

In the past, Murphy said, the diocese "never had a clear plan of how to reach out to a parish" directly affected by allegations of abuse. "Often priests and parishioners have felt abandoned by me and by the diocese," he said. In the future, he said, a top-level representative will be sent, as well as counselors if necessary.

Murphy also said that new candidates to the priesthood will be screened to determine "any proclivity to this behavior" and that all priests have attended "boundaries workshops" to examine their own behavior. Murphy also said that all allegations will be reported to law enforcement.

The removal of the Ribaudo tribute came after an alumna from the class of 1978 called the school on Tuesday. "I just thought it was inappropriate to honor someone who at this point is an embarrassment to the Trinity family, the Trinity community," said the alumna, who declined to be identified. "They told me they were just reeling from this," she said. "Nobody believed it was true until yesterday."

William Dalton, director of development at Trinity, acknowledged that Ribaudo's laurel was removed, as were those of the other members of the Hall of Fame. However, he said any additional information had to come from the school's principal, who did not return a telephone inquiry.

"It was a very small thing for the victims, but they have to know that people care," said the alumna.


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