Bishop Gets Earful
Li Catholics Vent Anger

By Rita Ciolli
Newsday [Long Island NY]
June 26, 2003

For three nights this week Bishop William Murphy listened to his flock and he heard that not many are happy with their shepherd.

While the tone of these "listening sessions" was mostly respectful, the betrayal and hurt of Long Island's Catholic community was overwhelmingly evident.

On each of the three nights, Murphy was rebuked for an expensive renovation of his residence, admonished for not being more open in his handling of the priest sex abuse scandal in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, and upbraided for not allowing Voice of the Faithful, a lay group, to meet on church property. Only a few offered praise.

"I am struck by the level of dysfunction in this church ... I see pain and all I hear is silence," a woman from St. Brigid's parish in Westbury told Murphy at Wednesday's final session in Hicksville.

In a dramatic moment at the Monday night meeting in Riverhead, one man from a family of seven brothers said that he and three other brothers were abused by the same priest. There are only six of them now, he said.

"I am here for my dead brother," he cried out, his trembling voice echoing through the open windows of the high school auditorium. He didn't say how the brother died. Saying this was the first time he had publicly spoken about the abuse, he told the bishop he is sure there are more victims who are still silent.

"There are a lot more priests still out there," he shouted before hastily exiting the school. The diocese has said any priest with a credible abuse allegation against him has been suspended from ministry.

At each of the sessions, Murphy heard a generalized anger about the nationwide scandal and cover-up by the hierarchy of the American church. But there also was pointed criticism of his leadership as arrogant and out of touch with those in the pews.

"Your actions after these sessions will be what makes the difference. Walk with us, not above us," a Wyandanch man said in Riverhead.

The news media were not allowed to attend the sessions. While extensive notes about what was said were provided to Newsday by attendees, the names of those who spoke are not being disclosed unless the person later agreed to be identified.

At Monday night's session in Riverhead, one young man yelled, "Go back to Boston." Others were more polite but the message was the same. "Admit your silence in the face of evil - apologize for not speaking out until much harm had been done and ask for forgiveness," said Phil Megna of Fort Salonga, a member of St. Anthony of Padua's parish in East Northport.

Murphy, who spent most of his career in the Archdiocese of Boston, was installed as head of the Diocese of Rockville Centre in September 2001, just a few months before the massive cover-up of priests who sexually abused minors was revealed in his hometown. He denies any wrongdoing in the cover-ups.

On Tuesday night, Murphy appeared shaken and close to tears, according to those interviewed as he left the auditorium of Holy Trinity Diocesan High School in Hicksville. "I am so sorry," Murphy said more than once as he searched for words. He thanked those who came for their faithfulness as well as their honesty, which, he said, was "at times painful to hear."

"He seemed very moved," said Bette Russo of St. Peter of Alcantara parish in Port Washington. "He touched everybody, there was a hush in the room."

Terry Tiejen of St. Ignatius parish in Hicksville was also sympathetic. "Bishop Murphy deserves some credit for facing what must have been the most unpleasant ordeal of his life," she said.

About 700 people attended the Hicksville meeting, with about 300 at St. John the Baptist High School in West Islip on Sunday night and about 350 participants in Monday's meeting at Mercy High School in Riverhead.

Murphy announced in December that the financially struggling Riverhead school was being taken over by the diocese and would be renamed in honor of the late John McGann, the popular bishop under whose watch most of the instances of abuse on Long Island occurred. At the Mercy High School session, a graduate of the school asked him to reconsider the name change, so that his alma matter wouldn't "forever be tied to this scandal."

Overall, about 120 people, including two parents who said their children were abused, expressed their views which ranged from very conservative to very liberal. The bishop was told, alternately, that priests should be only male, celibate, married or female. He was asked whether there was a "subculture of actively homosexual priests on Long Island" and told that the diocese's financial reports are seriously undervaluing the real estate it owns.

Under the guidelines of the sessions, Murphy made no comments. However, the high-profile events have created an expectation among Long Island Catholics that the sessions will lead to some changes.

"I expect him to take some action now and get rid of the hierarchy that was involved in the cover-up. Priests didn't get moved around like that without a lot of people knowing what was going on," said Dan Sullivan of St. Martin of Tours in Bethpage as he left Tuesday's session.

Joanne Novarro, a spokeswoman for the diocese, said Murphy would respond in the coming weeks. "He realized he can't put this to the side, that he has to formulate a response sooner or later," she said.

"I think it is going to have a good, positive effect. The bishop wants to do the right thing," said Ed Thompson of St. Kilian's parish in Farmingdale and one of many Voice of the Faithful members who spoke at the sessions. "Basically, he is a good man who got caught up in this situation."

Others were not impressed. As she left the Tuesday night session, Maureen King of Maria Regina parish in Seaford said, "Too little, too late."


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