Spota and Murphy Should Not Be Adversaries

February 16, 2003

Two starkly different institutions, one sacred and one secular, intersected last week with the release of a stinging grand jury report on sexual abuse by Catholic priests of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, and on the handling of those cases by the hierarchy.

It was intensely painful for the church, and for anyone who read the shocking details in the 180-page report. And it was no walk in the park for Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota. Some cynics hinted that he launched the investigation last year to reap publicity, but that is wrong. As a Catholic, Spota was outraged by the scandal. As a prosecutor, he believed he had an obligation to investigate, though some advised him that it would be an explosive task. He deserves praise for not backing down.

The result is an ugly set of facts spread painfully on the public record. But Bishop William F. Murphy, still finding his way as the leader of the diocese less than 18 months after taking office, should look at this as a moment for learning and for healing. Though his diocese and Spota's office now appear to be adversaries, the bishop would be wise to work with Spota, a layman who can help the church handle these cases better.

In his response to the report, which was printed in Newsday and in the diocesan newspaper, the bishop wrote: "If that report offers anything concrete to improve our procedures, I will make those changes that the report legitimately might demand." Murphy could do more.

Spota offered to audit annually the church's handling of these cases. Though Murphy has made some useful changes in policy, and the U.S. bishops now have a new charter to protect children, Spota's offer could play a supportive role in restoring public confidence in the church.

The hard reality is that prosecutors know crime when they see it, but in the past, prelates either could not or would not see the abuse as crime. Not once, Spota said, did the diocese report to law enforcement authorities the abuses outlined in the grand jury report.

Worse, the report's lurid accounts of the original sexual abuse cases seem magnified by the story of the diocese's insensitivity to the victims. In one case, the team handling complaints blacklisted a priest who told the diocese about another priest's abuse. The team suggested that the intervening priest not get another assignment.

"In the Diocese of Rockville Centre, a priest who molests children should suffer no disgrace but one who advocates on their behalf risks banishment," the report said. It also said that in this diocese, "as a victim of sexual abuse committed by a priest, you were likely to be treated badly."

Perhaps the most disturbing example was the behavior of a diocesan priest-lawyer who appeared to work with victims, but was really a stealth advocate for the diocese. This cynicism and selfish protection of the institution, at the expense of the innocent, is devastating.

What can the diocese do about it now? For starters, it could act on Murphy's support for laws mandating clergy to report sexual abuse, which the grand jury recommended. Murphy would do well to join Spota in lobbying for this change. That would be a powerful symbol that the bishop is serious about healing the wounds.

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