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A victim of a priest at Saints Philip & James Roman Catholic Church in St. James came forward to share his story publicly last week. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

By Alex Petroski and Sara-Megan Walsh

A group of lawyers is working to deliver a clear message to survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of clergy members: You are not alone.

Lawyers Helping Survivors of Child Sex Abuse, a national team of attorneys, released a report Feb. 5 detailing allegations of childhood sexual abuse made against 51 individuals associated with the Diocese of Rockville Centre. The report, titled Hidden Disgrace II, is comprised of clergy referenced but not named in a 2003 Suffolk County grand jury investigation of the diocese, those accused in previous media reports and individuals accused by survivors.

The goal of the report was to create a central location where Long Islanders can easily find information about accused clergy members, to empower survivors and to enlighten communities to the abusers’ diocese appointments, according to Jerry Kristal, an attorney at the law firm Weitz & Luxenberg, who joined up with the law group behind the report.

At least one North Shore survivor has felt empowered and publicly shared his story in the aftermath of the report’s release.

The group is also working to make the public aware of the April 30 deadline to file a claim with the diocese compensation program for victims of abuse.

A 40-year-old secret

A man alleging childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a St. James priest stepped forward Feb. 15 to share his story publicly for the first time.

Steve Werner, 59, of North Carolina, alleged that as a teenager growing up on Long Island, he was repeatedly inappropriately touched by Father Peter Charland, a priest at Sts. Philip & James R. C. Church in St. James — a Diocese of Rockville Centre church — in the early 1970s.

“This opportunity is part of my own healing processing of being able to uncover the secret I’ve carried with me for 40-something years,” he said.

“This opportunity is part of my own healing processing of being able to uncover the secret I’ve carried with me for 40-something years.”

— Steve Werner

Werner said he joined Sts. Philip & James’ Christian singing group, the PJ Folk Singers, led by Charland when he was 11 years old. The musical group, at its height, had more than 100 members consisting of parishioners and children from the surrounding communities, according to Werner’s attorney J. Michael Reck of Jeff Anderson & Associates.

Werner said it didn’t take long for him to notice that Charland was giving him preferential treatment. The priest offered him special parts in plays, a leadership role in the musical group, even gifted him a trumpet, according to Werner.

“Those behaviors, as they built, the amount of touching that occurred increased and increased,” he said.

Werner alleged he spent time alone with Charland in the church’s rectory, in the priest’s car, and even took private flights alone with the priest, whom he claims had a pilot’s license. The musical group also traveled overseas to tour Romania under Charland’s supervision.

“I certainly thought it was wrong but I didn’t feel it was appropriate for me to stand up,” Werner said. “It’s something I regret.”

Father Charland left the St. James parish in 1975. His name disappeared from all church records made available by the diocese after 1976, according to Reck. New York State records show Charland was a certified social worker from 1978 until his death in 2004.

“It appears the church made no offer to warn the community of his dangerous proclivities,” Reck said.

It wasn’t until 2013 that Werner found the courage to tell someone about his alleged abuse. He shared his story with his mother and a few close friends in an email.

Werner said in recent years he has reconnected with other members of the PJ Folk Singers and heard tales that echo his own. He is in treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder related to his alleged abuse, Werner said, and struggles to cope with his own feelings of shame and guilt.

Requests for comment from members of the PJ Folk Singers were not returned. The St. James church said it had no comment on Werner’s allegations and deferred questions to the diocese.

Not alone

Werner filed a claim, through his attorney Reck, with the Diocese of Rockville Centre’s Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Plan for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy members. He is one of eight former members of The P.J. Folk Singers filing claims that they were sexually abused by Charland as teenagers.

“By the filing of these claims, we pose the question of what did the church officials know and what could have been done to save these children from being exposed,” Reck said. “By submitting these claims, we hope these allegations will be investigated and the knowledge made public, so these events can never happen again.”

Reck said his law firm has reason to believe the church knew of Charland’s alleged actions, as parishioners, family members and survivors allege they made reports to the diocese in the ’70s. The lawyer shared the priest’s letter.

Charland, in citing the reasons he left the St. James church wrote, “I found myself becoming more and more self-centered and self-absorbed. As I look back on it now, I realize I had fallen prey to such miserable characteristics because of my own personal loneliness. I do not say this by way of excuse. … The truly scary part is knowing I was beginning to hurt people despite my best intentions to never do that to anyone. For this, I remain truly sorry.”

Accused North Shore priests

Several clergy members named in Hidden Disgrace II served at churches and other facilities on Long Island.

The report says the allegations should not be considered substantiated claims, but rather public accusations, unless otherwise indicated in the report.

Among those named in the report is Father James C. Miller, who was assigned to St. Anthony of Padua R.C. Church in East Northport and St. Gerard Majella Church in Port Jefferson Station in the ’90s. Miller was sued along with the diocese in 1994 for allegedly sexually abusing two teenage boys at St. John the Baptist High School in West Islip, though he denied allegations, according to a 2002 Newsday report. He was moved to a position that did not involve working with children following the suit, including serving as chaplain at St. Charles Hospital and John T. Mather Memorial Hospital in Port Jefferson, according to the website www.bishop-accountability.org, which was also the source material for much of Hidden Disgrace II.

“We stand in solidarity with our survivors and their families, and we continue our commitment and vigilance to the protection of children in our Church and in society.”

— Sean Dolan

Father Joseph Mundy was also assigned to St. Gerard Majella, along with stops at St. James R.C. Church in Setauket and St. John the Baptist Church in Wading River during the ’80s and ’90s. The report alleges Mundy was Priest A in the 2003 Suffolk grand jury investigation. The grand jury’s findings cite Priest A, “took a 14-year-old boy to a gay club in New York City where he and other patrons engaged in sexual activity with the boy.”

Mundy left the priesthood in 1999 according to www.bishop-accountability.org.

Two of the 51 priests were assigned to St. Margaret of Scotland Church in Selden. Public accusations against Father Angelo Ditta, the report alleges, match the descriptions of Priest H in the grand jury report, who allegedly began abusing a boy when he was 10 years old. Ditta was assigned to positions away from children beginning in 1998 and was removed from duty in 2002.

Father Gabriel Massaro was publicly accused of abusing a 12-year-old boy from St. Margaret of Scotland in Selden during retreats in 1979, according to a 2002 Newsday report. He continued receiving assignments outside of the Rockville Centre diocese through 2005, according to www.bishop-accountability.org.

When asked for comment on the report, representatives from the various churches and facilities named in this section either did not respond to requests for comment or declined, directing inquiries to the diocese.

“We as a church recognize that no amount of monetary compensation could ever erase or undo the grave harm suffered by survivors of child abuse,” Sean Dolan, diocese director of communications, said in a statement when asked about the report. “Still, we embrace Christ’s healing power and the Mission of Mercy of the Catholic Church as we continue our Independent Reconciliation and Compensation program. We stand in solidarity with our survivors and their families, and we continue our commitment and vigilance to the protection of children in our Church and in society.”

Compensation program

During a phone interview, Kristal said details of other accusations against clergy members have not been made available by Rockville Centre, and added if it is in fact serious about standing by survivors, perhaps it should make the information publicly accessible.

“Making amends, whatever that means to survivors, they have the information,” Kristal said. “That’s the one entity that has all of this information, so we would urge them to come out with something similar put out by them. That would be wonderful.”

“That’s the one entity that has all of this information, so we would urge them to come out with something similar put out by them. That would be wonderful.”

— Jerry Kristal

A survivor who wishes to file a claim under the IRCP prior to the April 30 deadline must begin by registering online with the Washington, D.C., law firm overseeing the program as a neutral party. If he or she meets the two criteria set by the diocese — that the abuse was done by a priest or deacon and that the abuser was part of the Diocese of Rockville Centre — a claim form can then be filled out. Lawyers Helping Survivors of Child Sex Abuse, or any other personal lawyer, could step in to assist in filing the claim should a survivor seek assistance.

Once a claim is filed, administrators from the law firm overseeing the program evaluate the claim. If an offer to settle is presented to a survivor, they can either accept or reject the offer. Those who reject the offer and whose abuse took place outside of New York’s statute of limitations — which are considered among the strictest in the U.S., according to Kristal — would have no further recourse unless laws are changed.

Those who accept settlement money give up the right to bring a lawsuit in the event of future law changes. Survivors are the only participants in the program permitted to speak publicly about their abuse — the diocese and administrators from the law firm are bound to confidentiality.

To learn more about the IRCP or to file a claim, visit the website www.drvc.org or www.childsexabuse.org/.

From left, volunteers Alexandra, Ilene, Emily and Brian Horan; Sela Megibow; Cantor Marcey Wagner; Paula Balaban; and Adam Morotto. Photo from Donna Newman

By Donna Newman

Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook established a new tradition this year, gathering a multi-generational group of congregants to cook up soup and vegetarian chili for people in need of support.

Cantor Marcey Wagner envisioned the community service event to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and enlisted Social Action Committee Chairperson Iris Schiff to help with the details.

From left, Julia Megibow, Hannah Kitt (seated), Lana Megibow, Abby Fenton, Hazel and Dasi Cash Photo from Donna Newman

The morning of Jan. 15 began with a reading of the story “As Good as Anybody” — written by Richard Michelson and illustrated by Raul Colon — about the friendship that formed between civil rights leader King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. The two men faced similar challenges growing up and shared a belief in the value of every human being. Heschel joined the civil rights movement and marched at King’s side in Selma in 1965.

Congregants brought fresh and canned vegetables to the synagogue and all the ingredients needed to make comfort foods. Everyone participated in the effort. After the chopping and mincing and blending, while the Instant Pots cooked, the children created greeting cards and small challahs to be delivered with the containers of food. The challah prep was under the tutelage of consummate baker Linda Jonas and the greeting cards were facilitated by artist Deborah Fisher.

The freezer is now stocked with portions of soup and chili to be delivered to the homebound, mourners and people who are ailing. They will also be available to families visiting the temple’s food pantry.

Temple Isaiah is located at 1404 Stony Brook Road, Stony Brook. For more information, please call 631-751-8518.

State assemblyman Mike Fitzpatrick with Rev. Myrel Bailey-Walton of Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Church in Smithtown. Photo from Facebook.

Pastoring a historic church with a small congregation needs confidence and faith — two qualities the reverend of Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Church at 229 New York Ave. in Smithtown naturally possesses.

The Rev. Myrel Bailey-Walton has been ensuring Trinity carries on since AME Bishop Richard Franklin Norris appointed her pastor five and a half years ago. While the church currently only has a handful of active congregants, the reverend isn’t worried.

“Numbers aren’t important,” Bailey-Walton said. “We make sure doors are open for anyone that needs us.”

She said during services and events, Smithtown residents and members of other AME churches, including Bethel AME Church in Setauket, will join Trinity’s regulars.

“We always have people stop by to see what’s going on and get involved,” Bailey-Walton said. “The neighbors around us are active as far as stopping by to see what’s going on and just letting us know that they’re there for us if we need them.”

Her motto is even if it’s one [person] she has service.”

— Marlyn Leonard

Marlyn Leonard, wife of the Rev. Gregory Leonard of Bethel AME Church, said she has attended services at Trinity. Also, Bailey-Walton preaches at the Setauket church the third Sunday of every month.

“Her motto is even if it’s one [person] she has service,” Leonard said.

Leonard said the reverend’s sermons are phenomenal, and she recommends that churchgoers stop by Trinity to see Bailey-Walton in action.

“She’s happy all the time,” she said. “When you see her, she greets with a smile and a hug. That’s who she is.”

Bailey-Walton said Trinity AME celebrated its 107th anniversary in November.

“I feel that we’re significant in Smithtown,” she said. “We’re the only African-American church — even though we embrace all the community — but still it’s historical.”

The property was once the meeting spot for freed slaves in the town who would gather regularly on the property and, in 1910, their descendants built a church on the land, according to “Smithtown, New York, 1660-1929: Looking Back Through the Lens” by Noel Gish. In 1931, the AME Church of Smithtown bought the structure for a dollar from Isadora Smith.

State Assemblyman Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James) said he remembers playing basketball as a teenager in Brady Park across from the church on Sunday mornings and seeing people dressed in their finest attire. For him, recognizing the historical importance of the church is important. Fitzpatrick is reaching out to representatives of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to see if the church can receive recognition from the state’s Historic Preservation Office and possible financial assistance.

We’re the only African-American church — even though we embrace all the community — but still it’s historical.”

— Rev. Myrel Bailey-Walton

Bailey-Walton said she balances her responsibilities as pastor with working full time and spending time with her husband, Leland, and 1-year-old child. To spread the word about the church, the reverend regularly posts on social media and the internet.

The reverend and Trinity’s congregation plan a variety of events through the year, including the church’s anniversary gala in November, an open house for the community and a Women’s Day event.

Leonard said Bailey-Walton juggles her responsibilities with grace and elegance.

“She answers her calling very well,” she said. “I can’t say enough about her. Since I’ve known her, she just grasps everything in a bundle, and what needs to be done, she gets it done by the grace of God.”

Leonard said in addition to working with her congregation, Bailey-Walton is always there to help with people outside of her community, especially when it comes to children or wherever there is a need by
participating in volunteer efforts.

“She’s a role model not only for God’s house but also for the community and others,” Leonard said.

Fitzpatrick said Bailey-Walton has been working with groups such as the Boys Scouts and Royal Rangers from Smithtown Gospel Tabernacle to complete projects at the church and grounds. Work that he said is significant due to the church’s historical importance. The assemblyman believes Bailey-Walton is a perfect fit for the church and is confident in her leadership abilities.

“She is a dynamo, she really is,” he said. “She is very committed. She knows God has her back, and she’s going to do her very best to keep this church alive. Any recognition of her is well deserved.”

The interior of Messiah Lutheran Church is decorated for Christmas and the congregation’s upcoming 60th anniversary. Photo from Messiah Lutheran Church

Churches represent a significant part of the history of the Three Village area, and in December, an East Setauket church will celebrate a historic milestone.

The Messiah Lutheran Church has been part of the community for 60 years, the first service being held Dec. 22, 1957, with 58 people in attendance. The congregation began as a mission of the Atlantic District of the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod.

For the first eight years, the congregation gathered at a hall inside VFW Post 3054 on Jones Street in East Setauket, according to a Jan. 20, 2003, Village Times Herald article written by the church’s first pastor the Rev. Henry Koepchen and Franklin Neal.

A goal of the congregation was to be near Stony Brook University. In the early 1960s, Ward Melville made 10 acres of land available to churches along Nicolls Road at $2,000 an acre. Originally, the congregation reserved land across from the school’s entrance, but when Nick Pastis offered seven and a half acres on Pond Path, his parcel was chosen instead. The construction of the building began in 1964, and a church dedication was held Palm Sunday 1966.

Messiah Lutheran Church celebrates 60 years in the Three Village community. Photo by Rita J. Egan

Town of Brookhaven Historian Barbara Russell said the location is considered the center of the historic community in the East Setauket-South Setauket area. Farmland once stretched from Bennetts Road south along Sheep Pasture Road and Pond Path to north Centereach. The area included a church on Bennetts Road, a school at the intersection of Sheep Pasture Road and Pond Path, a cider mill and the Hawkins family cemetery on the south side of the present church.

According to the article, the A-frame design of the structure is symbolic of a tent to remind worshippers that they are pilgrims on a journey. The building was designed by Robert Clothier and was created with laminated wood rafters measuring 78 feet long.

The first stage of construction included plans for a seating capacity of 306 at the center, 60 in the balcony and a wing with seven Sunday school classrooms that would accommodate 300 students, according to an article in the Nov. 22, 1963, edition of The Three Village Herald. The estimated cost of construction was $200,000.

In the 60 years of the Messiah Lutheran Church, the pastors have been long-standing. Founding pastor Koepchen remained until his retirement in September 1996. The Rev. Alfred Hofler has served as pastoral assistant since 1977, and the current pastor, the Rev. Charles Bell, was installed March 6, 1997.

In addition to offering Sunday services, the church opened a preschool in September 1997 for 3- and 4-year-olds. In 2013, a full-day New York State licensed day care program was launched.

Messiah Lutheran Church, located at 465 Pond Path, holds worship services every Sunday morning at 8:15, 9:30 and 11 a.m. A 60th-anniversary worship service is scheduled for Dec. 3 at 10 a.m. with guest preacher the Rev. Dr. John Nunes, president of Concordia College in Bronxville. For more information visit www.messiahny.com.

A WARM WELCOME Cantor Marcey Wagner in her office at Temple Isaiah Photo by Donna Newman

By Donna Newman

Spirituality has new resonance at Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook.

It comes in the voice of Marcey Wagner, who joined the Reform Jewish congregation last July, filling the dual roles of cantor and education director. The congregation will officially welcome her with an installation ceremony on Sunday, Oct. 29.

“I embrace the idea of new beginnings,” Cantor Wagner said during an interview in her temple office, “and I look forward to joyful things.”

Cantor Marcey Wagner in her office at Temple Isaiah Photo by Donna Newman

Wagner said she is pleased that many of her friends and colleagues gathered over her career will be present to celebrate and that the installing officer will be Dr. Cindy Dolgin, former head of the Solomon Schechter School on Long Island.

The addition of Cantor Marcey, as she likes to be known, is truly a joy according to her co-workers. Interim Rabbi David Katz views her as a valuable asset — both in the sanctuary and in the classroom.

“Cantor Wagner brings her vibrant nature to the bimah [clergy platform] and years of experience to the position of educational director,” he said. “She is a great addition to our staff, bringing beauty to our worship and creativity to our school.”

Temple Administrator Penny Gentile also sings Wagner’s praises. “It is a pleasure to work with Cantor Marcey,” said Gentile. “She is such a vivacious person — so full of energy that it’s absolutely contagious. I’ve heard so many positive comments from the Hebrew School students and their parents. She is truly a team player with a gift for identifying and nurturing strengths in everyone. And what a beautiful voice!”

Although ordained as a cantor, Wagner said she has not been “on the bimah” (i.e., she has not held a cantorial position) for eight years. Instead she has been focused on teaching, but she said that returning is like putting on a comfortable pair of shoes.

“I didn’t realize how much I missed it,” she said. “The audition felt like coming home.” Wagner said she loves seeing the children and hearing their voices and their laughter. For her it makes a synagogue come alive, which is why she has pursued education along with cantorial duties.

“Cantors spend more hours teaching than singing,” she said.

Wagner has been involved in all facets of Jewish education — teaching students from preschool through senior citizens. Before coming to Temple Isaiah she served as director of Youth and Family Education at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, New York. Her career included four years as principal of the Lower School of the Schechter School of Long Island and a decade as cantor and educator at the Jewish Congregation of Brookville in Nassau County.

Wagner received her investiture as hazzan (cantor) from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, at which she also earned a master’s degree in sacred music with a concentration in education. She was selected to attend The Principals’ Center leadership seminar at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The board of directors at Temple Isaiah unanimously approved Wagner’s hiring and has been extremely pleased with her performance to date.

“Cantor Marcey is a breath of fresh air,” said President Jay Schoenfeld, “both on the bimah and in the religious school. Her energy is boundless and her warmth is evident in all the connections she’s already established with congregants, lay leaders and community members. A collaboration with Rabbi Katz to offer children’s services for the High Holy Days — open to the public and free of charge — demonstrates her devotion to Judaism. We are delighted to have her at Temple Isaiah.”

Cantor Marcey is delighted, too, and said she already knows she’s found a new home.

“It’s wonderful meeting people and seeing how warm and welcoming [the Temple Isaiah] community is,” she said. “I’m planning on staying a long time. I’ve been impressed with everyone’s organization and efficiency; I have a very positive feeling about this place. Everything has lived up to my expectations. It’s exciting when there’s a path to go on and you have congenial, capable partners with whom to make the journey.”

Wagner is committed to shaking things up, she said, to prove that Hebrew school can be fun. To elucidate she described last month’s opening session of the school program. Using a film clip from the movie “Babe’” in which the title character, a piglet, arrives at the farm, she led a discussion about new beginnings, which are exciting and scary — and complicated. The unconventional, unkosher protagonist, she said, was intended to make people think — and laugh. The session included students alongside their parents, and Wagner said she made sure everyone present took away at least one new bit of knowledge, to encourage discourse.

“One of the strongest ways to promote Judaism,” she said, “is to provide a venue for parents and children to discuss the important questions; to have the important conversations.”

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