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Eying Diocese Leaders in Coverup

Apr 12, 2002 | New York Daily News Taking dead aim at Catholic Church leaders, a Long Island prosecutor said yesterday he is investigating top clerics for covering up child sex allegations against priests.

Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota said a first-ever special grand jury will probe leaders of the Rockville Centre diocese for allegedly trying to keep a lid on the shocking accusations for decades.

Spota would not rule out the possibility that Bishop William Murphy, the spiritual leader of 1.5 million Long Island Catholics, could be subpoenaed to testify — or face charges.

"The time has come to investigate not only that matter [child sex allegations], but what the Diocese of Rockville Centre has done," Spota said. "It does appear there has been a coverup."

Calls for Resignations

The groundbreaking probe was launched as a new poll revealed that an overwhelming majority of Americans believe Catholic Church leaders who coddled accused priests should resign.

Some 77% of Americans, including 70% of Catholics, told pollsters the bishops should step down over the reports they shuffled accused priests from parish to parish instead of reporting them to authorities.

The coverup allegations seemed particularly troubling to the public, with 43% of those questioned in the poll saying the church's reputation has been hurt most by its handling of the scandal. Just 29% said the abuse itself has most tarnished the church.

On Long Island, Spota raised the specter of a far-reaching criminal effort by church leaders to prevent authorities from investigating child sex allegations.

"I am not at all satisfied with the credibility of public assertions of the church that it is properly policing its clergy," Spota said.

Instead of notifying authorities about accusations, church leaders apparently shuffled the priests to unsuspecting parishes, he said.

Spota said he will look to uncover evidence that the diocese "purposefully reassigned accused priests to other parishes to the detriment of innocent children."

Last month, Murphy handed over what he said were complete church files on priests accused of sexually abusing children — a list that law enforcement sources said includes between 12 and 14 priests.

But Spota said the church may not have bared all its dirty laundry.

A church spokeswoman said she was puzzled by Spota's coverup claim. "We have handed over all the materials he asked for and were continuing to do so," said Joanne Novarro, a spokeswoman for the Diocese of Rockville Centre.

Advocates for abuse victims said Spota will get the full truth only if he forces Murphy to testify under oath.

"If he puts Bishop Murphy on the stand, then we're going to get to the bottom of it," said Susan Langford of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

To L.I. From Boston

Murphy has been a bishop on Long Island since September, after serving for years in the scandal-plagued Boston archdiocese. He succeeded Bishop James McHugh, who died after 11 months in the post.

Bishop John McGann had headed the diocese for 23 years before McHugh. He also died in February.

The only Long Island priest charged in the scandal is Rev. Michael Hands, who pleaded guilty last month to sodomizing a 13-year-old boy at his East Northport church.

Hands was later transferred to another parish in East Meadow, L.I., a move that mirrors church actions against other priests accused of abuse. Sources said Hands, who is awaiting sentencing, is cooperating with investigators.

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