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Memorialized names of Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse open old wounds

A street sign in front of St. Aidan

A street sign in front of St. Aidan Roman Catholic Church in Williston Park honors its former pastor, the Rev. Charles Bermingham, after whom the street was renamed. Bermingham, however, landed on a list of clerics accused of sexually abusing minors. Some are calling for the signs to be removed. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Msgr. Charles Bermingham was so beloved a pastor at the Church of St. Aidan in Williston Park that the street in front of the parish was named after him decades ago.

But last month, Bermingham’s name was among 101 priests on a list of clerics that the Diocese of Rockville Centre, in papers submitted to U.S. Bankruptcy Court, said were credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors.

Now advocates, attorneys and survivors are demanding that officials remove the "Bermingham Place" street sign. Bermingham died in 2003.

A "simple gesture" of removing the name "would help survivors try to heal and gain a degree of closure," said Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston-based attorney who is representing 25 survivors in lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Church on Long Island.

At another parish in Nassau County, St. Paul the Apostle Roman Catholic Church in Brookville, the lower parish hall and offices are named after Msgr. Mario Costa. He, too, was included on the diocesan list submitted April 15.

The hall boasts a plaque bearing a carved likeness of Costa’s face and a quotation that says in part, "To live in the midst of the world with no desire for its pleasures … to penetrate all secrets; to heal all wounds … to have a heart of fire for charity and a heart of bronze for chastity."

Some parishioners and advocates want his name removed from the hall, along with the plaque. Costa died in 2007.

"It’s the height of hypocrisy for it to say that stuff and for them to keep it up there while he’s on their list of credibly accused priests," said Pat Stoneking, a Manhattan-based attorney with Jeff Anderson & Associates who is also representing survivors on Long Island.

"He’s on your list of priests accused of doing horrific things, and you have a plaque up?"

The Diocese of Rockville Centre, which oversees the Catholic parishes on Long Island, said it had made no decision on the street and hall commemorations.

The inaction has not pleased critics.

"Keeping those names just is another indication of how insensitive the Catholic Church is to clergy sexual abuse survivors and how little it cares about survivors’ healing," Garabedian said.

The diocese, which declined to provide details of the allegations against the priests, says it is still considering the issue.

"The Diocese has been studying the matter of building names and is in the process of addressing it," said Sean Dolan, a spokesman. "The Diocese is not commenting on particular cases at this time. Allegations are being addressed in the appropriate judicial forums."

Williston Park Mayor Paul Ehrbar said he was not aware of Bermingham’s inclusion on the list of alleged perpetrators of sexual abuse of children, and that local officials would have to meet to decide whether to take any action.

Bermingham started working at St. Aidan in 1960, according to the court papers, and retired in 1977, according to the parish website.

At one point, he served as head of the Catholic Youth Movement in the diocese and director of Catholic Charities, the papers stated.

Costa spent 27 consecutive years as pastor at St. Paul the Apostle, starting in 1975, other than a seven-month absence in 1982, the papers state. He completed his service there in 2002.

One Long Island parishioner, James Hughes, who said he served as an altar boy for Costa when the priest served at Holy Family parish in Hicksville in the 1970s, said he has written to church officials and is calling for Bishop John Barres to have the plaque removed.

"To allow that plaque to remain up and have the hall named after Costa is a slap in the face to those that were victimized by this guy," Hughes said. "The culture of deceit and silence continues."

He added that "the diocese was aware of this priest, concealed it from the parishioners, and has not made whoever was victimized by this man feel welcome and comforted."

The list — the first time the diocese has provided an extended accounting of the names of priests with credible allegations against them — also provides the locations where the abuse took part, from motels, boats, ski resorts and even an airplane, to locales as far-flung as Yellowstone National Park, the Bahamas, Rome, Italy, and Zurich, Switzerland.

The diocese has come under recent criticism for leaving the names of several dozen priests off the list, including two prominent church figures, former Bishop John McGann and Msgr. Alan Placa, even though lawsuits have been filed against them.

Bermingham is listed as priest No. 8, and the document says the alleged abuse occurred at St. Aidan. During his career, he also served or lived at other locations, including St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Babylon and St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church in Huntington.

Costa is listed as priest No. 22, and the document says the alleged abuse occurred at St. Paul the Apostle. Dating to the 1950s, he also served in other parishes, including St. Patrick in Glen Cove, Ss. Cyril & Methodius in Deer Park, and Holy Family in Hicksville.

Bermingham and Costa were not previously known to attorneys for survivors of clergy sexual abuse, Stoneking said.

Garabedian said many Catholic dioceses had halls or other buildings named after priests who were later found to have credible accusations of sexual abuse of minors against them.

Often, he said, church officials refuse to take down the names.

Some church analysts said the Rockville Centre diocese and local officials may have little choice in these cases.

"Any street name, any building, anything that’s honoring someone who is later proven to be an abuser, that’s just got to go," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior analyst for Religion News Service, a news agency focusing on religious issues. "That can’t stay. That would be an insult to the survivors of abuse. It would be insane to not get rid of those things."

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