L.I. Diocese Adding Laypeople to Panel on Priestly Abuse

April 25, 2002

By ELISSA GOOTMAN

New York Times

UNIONDALE, N.Y., April 24 - The bishop of the Rockville
Centre Roman Catholic Diocese announced today that
non-Catholics and law enforcement experts, including a
former Nassau County police commissioner, would help handle
future allegations of sexual abuse by priests.

Bishop William Murphy said that in changing the way
allegations are dealt with, he hoped to restore Catholics'
trust in their spiritual leaders.

"The church must be a beacon of hope and trust," he said.
"That beacon has been dimmed."

The bishop's remarks came as American cardinals met with
Pope John Paul II at the Vatican to discuss a
zero-tolerance approach, in which priests involved in a
single case of abuse would be dismissed. Closer to home,
officials in the Diocese of Paterson, N.J., suspended three
priests because of sexual abuse allegations that they said
had come to light in the past 10 days. Also today, the
Archdiocese of New York said it would release sexual abuse
victims from confidentiality agreements reached as part of
civil settlements.

Speaking to reporters at the diocese's television studio
here, Bishop Murphy said that he was not aware of the
archdiocese's decision but that as he developed new
procedures for sexual abuse cases, "I will be considering
each and every suggestion that has been made."

In a speech that was to be televised on a local cable
station, Bishop Murphy said he would end a policy in which
some abusive priests who undergo therapy are placed in
"restricted ministry," meaning that they can serve as
pastors so long as they do not work with children or
teenagers.

"As a bishop I will not do this," he said. "If a priest is
not able to care pastorally for children and minors without
placing them at risk, then that priest cannot do any kind
of pastoral ministry whatsoever. He will not ever be given
any ministry here in this diocese or in any other diocese
so long as I am your bishop."

While previous allegations were handled by a panel of
priests, Bishop Murphy announced that in the future, a new
"pastoral intervention team" would address all reports of
abuse. The team will consist of the Rev. Robert J. Batule,
who has served as associate pastor at three Long Island
churches and as chairman of the Catholic Youth Organization
of Nassau and Suffolk; Sister Sean Foley, a member of the
Brooklyn region of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas who
is also a practicing psychotherapist; and Donald F. Kane,
who retired as Nassau County police commissioner two years
ago.

As the team deals with complaints and passes information to
law enforcement officials, a review board will examine
every case and recommend whether an accused priest should
be allowed to return to the ministry, the bishop said.

The review board now includes a psychiatrist and a social
worker; in the future, Bishop Murphy said, it will include
another psychiatrist and a social work expert, both
non-Catholics, as well as parents, a priest and two law
enforcement experts. The number of members has not been
finalized.

"Only when I have received a report that the priest is
innocent of the charges, and I have received the assessment
that there is no psychiatric pathology, and after I have
been informed that the priest has been cleared by the
review board will I consider returning that innocent priest
to pastoral ministry," Bishop Murphy said. "I pledge that I
will never be more lenient than the review board, though I
may be more stringent."

Bishop Murphy said his interest in rooting out errant
priests dates to September, when he began his assignment on
Long Island.

"I personally read every file that had an allegation of
sexual misconduct against a minor," he said. "If a priest
with such an allegation in his personnel file was still in
any kind of ministry, he, too, was immediately removed from
that ministry."

Critics have said the diocese transferred abusive priests
in the past, and the Suffolk district attorney is
investigating whether cases of abuse were covered up. The
bishop said he did not believe that the diocese tried to
cover up sexual abuse cases but would cooperate with
prosecutors.

Meanwhile, officials with the Paterson Diocese said that
after learning of allegations against three priests, they
have suspended the Rev. Allen Stepien, pastor of St. Mark
the Evangelist in Long Valley, N.J.; the Rev. Ralph Sodano,
pastor of Our Lady of the Mountain in Schooleys Mountain,
N.J.; and the Rev. Absalom Coutinho, who served at the
Annunciation Church in Wayne, N.J., before moving to an
out-of-state diocese in 1998.

The allegations against Father Stepien date back 20 years
and the accusations against Father Sodano are about 25
years old, officials said.

In New York City, the spokesman for the Archdiocese of New
York, Joseph Zwilling, said the decision to release sexual
abuse victims from confidentiality clauses was prompted by
requests from the Westchester district attorney, Jeanine F.
Pirro. "We're trying to cooperate with the district
attorneys," Mr. Zwilling said.

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