Amid Anger, Faith
LI Catholics Say They Plan to Stay Strong, United in the Church

By Indrani Sen
February 17, 2003

There was anger, of course. From the pulpits and in the pews, at Masses across the Island this weekend, Catholics said they felt betrayed by their leaders as they digested a damning Suffolk County grand jury report about sexual abuse in the church.

But even amid their anger, Catholics expressed an intention to stay strong in their faith, to remain united in the church and to pray for the victims, as well as for the salvation of those who perpetrated the abuse.

The report, released last week, alleged that the Diocese of Rockville Centre hid sexual abuse against children with intimidation and financial settlements.

"It's so terrible and so awful," said the Rev. Francis X. Gaeta, pastor of Saints Cyril & Methodius Church in Deer Park, in his homily Sunday morning. Still, he said, "the sins of the few does not in any way take away from the love of Jesus for his church." Catholics must "realize that the church is not the pope or the bishop or the clergy," he said. "The church is Jesus Christ."

In Brookville's Church of St. Paul the Apostle, the Rev. Arthur Anderson did not speak in detail of the grand jury report, but he prayed that the leaders of the church "be unafraid to ask for forgiveness."

At St. Luke's in Brentwood, the Rev. Gerald Digiralamo told of his personal pain at the allegations, recalling his own call to the priesthood at age 8, when he would kneel before a mini store- bought altar and pray.

Reading the events of last week in the paper, he told his congregation, "I kept on saying to myself, 'Dear Lord is this possible?'" The abuse, he said, is "like a shepherd killing the sheep for his own pleasure."

In his sermon, Msgr. Ronald Hayde of St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre said the grand jury report "has brought us very, very low."

"How can we ever pick up the pieces and possibly move ahead?" he asked, before answering, "We must throw ourselves at the feet of Jesus."

"I liked that they finally said the words 'sexual abuse,'" said parishioner Peter Lockwood as he left the cathedral with his family. "Before, they've only called it 'the problem.' It was important that they acknowledge the issue."

Outside the Saturday evening Mass at St. Rose of Lima Parish in Massapequa, several parishioners said they felt sorry for the victims, and pity for the abusers, who broke their vows and broke the law. Their faith, however, remained unbroken. "I feel sorry for the people involved, but it hasn't touched my faith," said Mildred Tovar, 48, of Massapequa.

Beatrice Schimoler, 76, of Brookville, said she feels sorry for the priests who are not abusers. "People of little faith will look at anyone with a Roman collar and think that he's an abuser," she said at St. Paul's Sunday morning. "It's such a small minority of priests that have offended us and God, compared to all the wonderful priests who have given their lives for us."

At Saints Cyril & Methodius Church, Eileen Grieb, 43, of Deer Park, said she still believes in the priests of her parish and sends her children to participate in activities without a second thought. "If I didn't trust the priests and the church," said Grieb, who is a member of the parish school board, "I wouldn't be active here."

But some of the faithful were not in the mood to forgive or forget.

"I'm very upset," said Diana Pierro, 55, of Bayville, at St. Paul's in Brookville Sunday morning. "It's just unfortunate that the people in charge, to protect the innocent, have done such a poor job."

She said she also was shocked by the report's estimate that abuse cost the diocese $2 million, most of it in settlements to victims. "We have given money in the hope that it was doing well for the righteous," she said. "And we have seen that it was not. It was heartbreaking, because we trusted these people."

John Young, who is in his 70s, said he was "absolutely disgusted with the church," as he left Mass at Saints Cyril & Methodius Church. "I think Bishop Murphy is not worthy of being a bishop in any diocese in the United States. The diocese cannot be cured until he leaves."

Whatever happens with diocesan leadership, Connie Leogrande, 70, of Jericho, said giving up her faith is not an option.

"It would be very difficult for me without the church, and without priests," said Leogrande, a parishioner at St. Paul's since it opened 40 years ago. "In sickness or death or whatever in my family, they have always been there for us. And that has been a great source of consolation."

"It's sad," she said as she waited for her ride outside the deserted church in the cold Sunday morning. "It's very, very sad."

Staff writers Nedra Rhone, Bart Jones, Erik Holm, Sam Bruchey and Dawn MacKeen contributed to this story.

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