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Bishop John McGann: His life and work in Rockville Centre

McGann, who was accused Tuesday of sexual abuse in the 1960s and 1970s, led the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre for nearly a quarter-century before his death.

Bishop John McGann during a Holy Thursday Mass

Bishop John McGann during a Holy Thursday Mass at St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre on April 4, 1996. Photo Credit: Newsday / K. Wiles Stabile

Bishop John Raymond McGann led the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre and ministered to nearly 1.5 million Catholics in 134 parishes in Nassau and Suffolk counties for nearly a quarter-century.

On Tuesday, two women came forward through their lawyer to say they were abused as minors by McGann and others in the diocese at St. Agnes Parish in Rockville Centre.

He died on Jan. 29, 2002, at the age of 77.

The highly popular and charismatic McGann succeeded Bishop Walter P. Kellenberg in June 1976. His installation, which took place not at St. Agnes Cathedral but at the Nassau Coliseum to accommodate a bigger crowd, drew some 15,000 people.

McGann, who was secretary and then auxiliary to Kellenberg, was around for most of the diocese's history since it was founded in 1957.

“He knew every neighborhood, every road, and every road sign, and could — and did — share with you the history of every parish and every town and village he visited,” Bishop William F. Murphy said in an interview in 2002. “He knew and loved this Island with a deep and abiding affection for all its people.”

By 1978 the diocese faced fiscal problems so severe that McGann instituted the first Bishop’s Annual Appeal, seeking donations from the faithful to keep the diocese going. It started with a goal of $5 million, which rose to $8 million by 1990.

In the mid-1980s, McGann closed Holy Family High School and Maria Regina high schools and St. Pius Preparatory Seminary, a decision that angered many parents, who rented out the coliseum to protest.

McGann forged the way for changes in the diocese set into motion by the Second Vatican Council. Laywomen and men could distribute Holy Communion, girls could serve on the altar at Mass and laymen could be ordained as permanent deacons to help officiate.

"This was a very thriving diocese under McGann," Dan Bartley, a leader of reform group Voice of the Faithful, said in a Newsday interview in 2007.

McGann advocated nuclear disarmament, preached against abortion and encouraged governments and private enterprise to create more affordable housing.

In 1983, he asked Long Island Catholics to lobby the United States to end military aid to El Salvador and grant temporary asylum for an estimated 40,000 Salvadoran refugees in the diocese.

In 1985, he led nearly 4,000 protesters in a march against an abortion clinic in Hempstead.

McGann retired in 2000.

In 2003, a Suffolk County grand jury report described how the diocese — under McGann’s leadership — engaged in a systemic cover-up of priest sex abuse. Citing an internal diocesan memo, the report said that by 2002 there were abuse allegations on record against at least 58 priests, many of them inactive.

In interviews, including the one with Newsday in April 1980, McGann talked about the importance of family.

“The strength or weakness of family life is very, very important,” he said. “The strength because it’s through the family that most people find support in living out their lives. Through that support, they are, in turn, able to reach out to others. The weakness in family life is important in that when we deal with a person who is suffering, that suffering may stem from a lack of support: the alcoholic, the disturbed child, the person who is depressed and almost feels that God has passed him by, or doesn’t exist. And so one of the areas that I would feel that we have to strongly focus on is family life.”

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