Rockville Centre Bishop Rebuts Grand Jury Report

By Daniel J. Wakin
New York Times
February 13, 2003

ishop William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre responded yesterday to a scathing grand jury report about his diocese's handling of clerical sex abuse on Long Island with an impassioned and sometimes personal defense.

Many of the points he raised seemed to be direct rebuttals to denunciations in the report, which was released by a Suffolk County panel on Monday. The grand jury found that the diocese had duped victims with a sham "intervention team" to avoid scandal, suppress abuse charges, keep scores of abusive priests in the ministry and limit damage payments.

The bishop pointed out that he replaced the intervention team last April and added a broader review board to oversee it, required all abuse allegations to be reported to the authorities and banned confidential money settlements of claim. He said he had adopted a professional code of conduct for employees, promised to tell parishioners if one of their priests abused children and announced that any priest found unfit to be near children would be barred from all "pastoral ministry."

"The work is not over," he said in a column posted on the diocese's Web site and published in The Long Island Catholic newspaper yesterday. "We are, however, doing all that we know how to do in order to act rightly."

But the bishop did not address several major areas where the grand jury found fault.

Several pastors testified that they did not have access to personnel records that would have alerted them to problems with priests appointed to their parishes. "Whether it's going to change or not, I don't know, because it hasn't been discussed," said Joanne C. Novarro, spokeswoman for the diocese.

Further, members of the priests' board that helps make assignments did not receive damaging information from confidential files of applicants, the grand jury said. That remains the case, Ms. Novarro said. The director of priest personnel does have such access, she said.

In one example cited by the grand jury, the board heard no details about a priest with a long history of abuse - including reports that he rubbed the backs of altar servers with his crotch and put a dog collar around a boy's neck. One pastor for whom the priest worked was not told of letters of complaint, psychological evaluations and a recommendation that he be closely watched.

What the board did hear, the grand jury said, was only that the priest "didn't use good judgment."

The grand jury cited a number of cases in which priests turned a blind eye to suspicious behavior by fellow priests, like adolescent overnight guests and drinking in the rectory. While there are no written procedures for what pastors should do in those cases, "Now they're going to be told you need to report this," Ms. Novarro said.

The report also cited a case in which an abusive priest was transferred to another diocese without his records, which would have revealed his actions. There are no plans to pass on records in such cases, Ms. Novarro said. The bishop will continue to rely on a form that attests to a priest's clean record, she said.

Bishop Murphy defended his overall performance. "While I believe my colleagues and I have acted properly in every case we have handled in this diocese since September 2001, the church's failure to deal with this properly in the past will remain with us a long time," he said.

The comment appeared to distance Bishop Murphy from his predecessors, particularly Bishop John R. McGann, who served from 1976 until his retirement at the beginning of 2000. Bishop Murphy took over in September 2001.

Before Bishop Murphy came to Long Island, he was a top aide to Cardinal Bernard F. Law in Boston and was closely involved in handling the cases of abused priests there. He has been named in lawsuits brought by victims of Boston priests and was summoned to appear before a grand jury there this week.

In his column, the bishop said he may seem like a Boston import, "which makes me suspect automatically." Indeed, he said, he has been accused of mishandling abuse cases there. "Difficult as it is for me to have to defend myself, I must tell you that there is no evidence of that and, in fact, the opposite is the truth," he said.

The bishop expressed some frustration. Despite working hard for the diocese, he said, "My efforts to date have not removed opinions about my character."

A spokesman for the Survivor's Network of Those Abused by Priests, David Cerulli, said that the bishop's position in Boston made it hard to trust in his "change of heart."

"He's lost his credibility," Mr. Cerulli said. "What does that say about the moral character of a leader of the church when the only way he makes changes is when public opinion or the legal community forces him to change?"

Ms. Novarro defended her boss, saying that most of the damage had not occurred on his watch and that he had not been given enough credit for his actions in Rockville Centre.

"This isn't the evil empire," she said.


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