The Bishop's Quest
Amid Scandal, Declining Donations, Murphy Reaches out to LI Catholics and Meets DA after Scathing Report
By Rita Ciolli
Newsday [Long Island NY]
April 16, 2003
The season leading up to Easter is one of rebirth and redemption in the Catholic Church, and this year Bishop William Murphy is seeking to reconnect with Long Island Catholics, especially those who stopped attending weekly Mass and closed their checkbooks because of the priest sex abuse scandal.
In recent weeks, Murphy reached out to Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, who was responsible for the scathing grand-jury report that detailed the abuse of children and the cover-up by the Diocese of Rockville Centre. And even though Murphy won't lift his ban prohibiting Voice of the Faithful from meeting on church property and refuses to officially recognize the lay group of about 1,400 members, he invited five members of its leadership team for a lunch of salad and pasta at his residence last month.
"Everyone likes to be liked, even loved. I love the people of the diocese and Long Island in the Lord. I hope they'll come to know and like me, but popularity is merely a passing thing and my ministry has to be that of being a good and faithful bishop," said Murphy in an e-mail response last week to a request asking him to discuss his recent outreach efforts.
Murphy, who took over in September 2001, said he has visited all 134 parishes in the diocese, which serves 1.5 million Catholics in Nassau and Suffolk counties. "I want to listen, learn, reach out and shake the hands of everyone according to my ability and the specific challenges we have to face together," he said.
There are clear signals Murphy needs to reach out to Catholics estranged by the scandal. With a dramatic decline in contributions to the 2003 Bishop's Annual Appeal - as of last week it has only 54 percent of the pledges needed to meet the goal of $15 million - the major fund-raising drive is faltering. The pace of pledges is down 35 percent from this time last year.
Although Murphy and pastors have repeatedly assured Catholics that none of their donations is going for litigation costs, that remains a concern. Years ago Bishop John McGann created an "Uninsured Perils Fund" by taxing each parish and investing the proceeds; it now has $11 million. On Monday, 34 men who claim the diocese covered up four decades of sexual abuse by priests filed civil lawsuits seeking millions in damages. With more suits expected, the scandal - and its costs - are unlikely to fade from view soon.
There also has been a 9.4 percent drop in weekly Mass attendance, according to a tracking census taken by the diocese each December. That one-year drop from 2001 to 2002 is greater than the decline from 1990 to 2001, which was 7.64 percent, according to figures provided by the diocese.
Some of Murphy's attempts to mend fences may not be working. Last month, Murphy visited Spota's Hauppauge office to meet with prosecutors and key staff members responsible for the grand-jury report. Spota asked the bishop to require all diocesan personnel to report any allegations of abuse by a priest directly to law enforcement and not first to the diocese's representatives, including its attorney.
"I made it very clear to him that the procedures they were using are not adequate, that there needed to be proper safeguards to ensure that a member of the clergy could be prosecuted," said Spota, who noted that his main concerns were the immediate collecting of forensic evidence and the taking of statements from witnesses. "If we discover there was a delay in the reporting of a crime by a member of the clergy, we will investigate the crime and the reasons for the delay," he warned.
Spota described the meeting as cordial and said he was optimistic at the time that some agreement could be reached. "Unfortunately, I have not heard anything since," Spota said.
Asked whether he was going to adopt Spota's recommendations, Murphy replied that the diocese was in conformance with the procedures adopted by the nation's bishops and approved by the Vatican. "I'm always looking at them and we're open to making any changes that will make our commitment and our process better," he said.
The Voice of the Faithful is also unsure about whether Murphy will make any substantive changes, especially after Joanne Novarro, a spokeswoman for the diocese, described last month's lunch meeting as one with individuals and not an official recognition of the group, which is seeking a greater role in church decision-making. The dispute set off a furor at the group's monthly meeting Friday night.
"Bishop Murphy invited us as representatives of Voice of the Faithful. For him to deny that he met with us in that capacity is very disturbing," said Dan Bartley, co-director of the Long Island chapter.
Another co-director, Sheila Peiffer, said that at the meeting the bishop agreed to the formation of a diocesan pastoral council, an advisory group of lay Catholics. However, when asked if such a commitment was made, Murphy replied that he has been trying to form a council since he arrived in 2001. "It will take time and I can't do it by myself. I have to listen to people, consult with them and get their thoughts, but it is a job worth pursuing," he said.
Angered by Murphy's ban on using church property, as well as his refusal to recognize the group, 300 people at Friday night's monthly meeting started writing letters to Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the National Conference of Bishops, and Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, Pope John Paul II's representative in the United States.
Spota and Voice of the Faithful leaders are not the only critics Murphy has sat down with.
At his request, the bishop also met in Melville last month with the editorial board of Newsday, whose opinion pages and columnists have often questioned aspects of his leadership and past diocesan response to the sexual-abuse issue. And Murphy, who acknowledged in an open letter in February that he has yet to be fully accepted by priests, is inviting them in groups of 10 to informal get-to-know-you dinners at his residence.
Meanwhile, the Voice of the Ordained, a fledgling national movement of priests organizing in each diocese to work among themselves to stop abuse and provide support for each other, is taking root on Long Island. The Rev. William Brisotti, pastor of Our Lady of Miraculous Medal Church in Wyandanch, said 40 active priests, about 15 percent of those working in the diocese, have signed on. "Priests really don't have enough of a voice in this diocese either," said Brisotti at Friday's Voice of the Faithful meeting.
William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and a resident of Rockville Centre, applauded Murphy's efforts to strengthen bonds with his priests as well as to become comfortable with news organizations. But he believes the bishop went too far both in reaching out to Spota, because he felt the grand jury investigation was unnecessary, and probably in talking with the Voice of the Faithful, because its fund-raising for church charities could hurt the diocese.
"Murphy does suffer from a public-relations problem and obviously he is very concerned about that," Donohue said. "He has a tough job," he said, noting Murphy is inheriting a scandal that occurred mostly during the tenure of former Bishop John McGann.
The diocese also is releasing a little more information about how it operates. Although Murphy appointed a new financial council to advise him in July, he identified those on it only three weeks ago. A few details are also being provided on the workings of a review board evaluating the cases of priests suspended because of sexual-abuse allegations.
Last week, the diocese said Murphy had agreed with the recommendations of the review board. One priest will be returned to his parish because the charges against him were unsubstantiated, and two other cases will be forwarded to Rome for a decision on whether the priests should have a church trial. The diocese declined to identify the priests.
Lacking in Appeal?
Pledges were lagging to the 2003 Bishop's Annual Appeal as of April 8, the time at which the push for commitments winds down. Some parishes, however, have exceeded pledge goals.
Parishes Closest to Meeting Assigned Goals
% of Pledge
Parish Assigned Goal Commitments
% of Pledge
Parish Assigned Goal Commitments
The Bishop's Annual Appeal is the Diocese of Rockville Centre's chief fund-raiser. Revenue generated from individual parishes supports key diocesan programs. Parishes are assigned a target pledge goal based on a number of factors, including demographics. Once the goal is met, 30 percent of the money raised is returned to the parish for its needs. Additional money raised is divided between the parish and diocese.
Total 2003 Diocesan Goal: 15 million*
*Of the $15-million total, about $11.2 million is assigned to individual parishes. Remaining total of about $3.8 million includes expected contributions from major donors and corporate contributions.
Pledges as of April 8
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.