National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  January 9, 2004

Long Island and New York priests call for summit meetings

By Dick Ryan
New York

Speaking of “sadness” and “desperation,” priests in two New York dioceses have asked for urgent meetings with their episcopal bosses to address “widespread dissatisfaction” and hurtful leadership.

Bishop William Murphy
-- CNS/The Pilot

In an October letter sent to Bishop William Murphy of the Rockville Centre diocese, on Long Island, N.Y., 52 of his priests implored the bishop to meet with them and discuss “a general malaise and even an abiding anger within our beloved diocese.”

Murphy agreed to meet his clergy and a Jan. 19 summit is scheduled.

Cardinal Edward M. Egan
-- CNS/Reuters

Seventy-four priests of the New York archdiocese asked to meet with Cardinal Edward Egan to discuss a number of troubling issues “that cause pain and difficulty,” particularly the cardinal’s treatment of priests accused of sexual abuse. They asked to meet before the end of the year, but as of Dec. 19 the cardinal had not received the letter of invitation, according to the archdiocese’s information director.

The letter sent to Murphy spelled out a dire situation: “We perceive a fairly widespread dissatisfaction with the way you have related to some clergy and laity, and we sense a certain lack of confidence in your pastoral leadership in the diocese of Rockville Centre. We find the situation distressing.”

On Long Island, “the priests recognize that there is a very serious problem because of the lack of leadership as well as a credibility gap,” remarked Fr. William Brisotti, one of the signers and the pastor of one of the poorest parishes in the diocese.

“For instance, the lay people in groups like Voice of the Faithful have been led to believe that their presence is not appreciated by the bishop so they’ve been shut out by him,” Brisotti said.

Fr. Andrew Connolly said he is hopeful. “The meeting in January will be a real opportunity to find a way around some of the conflict and hard feelings that have been developing in the diocese among both priests and lay people.”

“I’m hopeful, but I don’t know how realistic that is,” he said.

Writing in Newsday about the meeting, Jesuit Fr. Raymond Schroth observed “how well they [the bishop and priests] listen to one another may well determine the future of the diocese and send messages to the rest of the church, where such tensions must be bubbling beneath the surface in many places. ... The big question for the January confrontation is: Can a man repeatedly described as aloof, arrogant and a CEO suddenly learn to listen?”

The letter to Murphy concludes: “The sadness and sense of desperation that we experience as so prevalent in our diocese impels us all to find a way to be true witnesses to the joy of the Gospel of Jesus, to the possibilities of forgiveness and reconciliation and to the power of truth, openness and flexibility to bring peace to our communities.”

Questions about truth, openness and flexibility figure into the complaints of the New York priests, who concluded their letter by stating, “The impression that you [Egan] have given is that the men who stand accused are ‘damaged goods’ and it would be better if they did not return to active duty.”

The letter says, “We need to tell you what you already know. The morale of the New York presbyterate is at an all-time low.” It alleged that the archdiocese’s handling of some recent personnel cases violate the Code of Canon Law and the spirit of Christus Dominus, a decree concerning the pastoral office of bishops promulgated Oct. 28, 1965.

“At least one priest prior to any full-blown administrative procedure or canonical trial seems to have been coerced into signing ‘a voluntary petition for laicization.’ ” The letter charged that “this is or may be perceived as” a violation of Canons 219 and 221, which stipulate the rights of “the faithful” to be free from coercion and to a defense in an ecclesiastical court, as well as Canon 188, which governs resignations from an ecclesiastical office.

One New York priest who signed the letter but preferred to remain anonymous said, “The cardinal is not acting as a leader. He’s afraid of the press so he does nothing, and he doesn’t communicate with his priests. … The morale among the priests in New York is not very good and I’m really surprised that only 74 priests signed the letter. There are some priests who are afraid of downtown [the chancery], but downtown needs us more than we need them.”

Two priests who signed the letter, Ed Byrne and Harry Byrne (no relation), refused to comment on the letter until they had received a response from Egan.

Joe Zwilling, the cardinal’s information director, said the cardinal had not received the letter, which was posted Dec. 12. Murphy’s spokesperson, Joanne Novarro, did not return several phone calls.

Dick Ryan is a freelance writer living in New York.

National Catholic Reporter, January 9, 2004

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