After Priest Dies, His Obituary Omits the Fact That He Was Kicked Out of the Ministry for Sexually Abusing Children July 26, 2014

After Priest Dies, His Obituary Omits the Fact That He Was Kicked Out of the Ministry for Sexually Abusing Children

Rev. Robert H. Purcell (below) died last week and several newspapers published a notice of his passing. It (unsurprisingly) mentioned the highlights of his life:

… Purcell, a former pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Margaretville, New York, who was responsible for fostering an interfaith initiative throughout the Catskill community, died Thursday, July 17, 2014.

Because of his ecumenical efforts, our region was blessed with good will and mutual respect among various religious factions. Friends enjoyed by the father were not exclusively Catholic parishioners, and his annual Passover celebrations were enormously popular.

Beloved as a counselor and spiritual mentor to his flock, Father Bob always had uplifting words of reassurance for those seeking guidance.

One parishioner summed up the feelings of many. Having suffered the devastating loss of his wife in a tragic accident, the gentleman shared his feelings with a friend, commenting, “Fifteen minutes with Father Bob is better than hours of conversation with a therapist.”

It goes on like that for a while. Lots of good stuff.

But there was one glaring omission: In 2011, Purcell was kicked out of the ministry after it was discovered that he sexually abused children.

In its investigation, the Diocese “found reasonable grounds to believe” that Purcell sexually abused minors, including a victim in Margaretville from 1995 to 2001, according to Ken Goldfarb, the director of communications for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany…

They left that little tidbit out of the obituary.

Was it journalistic malfeasance? Well, depends on how you look at it. Media watchdog Jim Romenesko explains:

“This was a paid obituary,” Glens Falls Post Star editor Ken Tingley tells me. “Editorial employees have no control over the content in those obits. They are not reviewed by us or edited by us.

To their credit, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, where Purcell worked, condemned the omission regardless, saying that it was unfair to his victims that his full history not be told:

A recent obituary for Robert Purcell of Roxbury has disturbed us deeply, primarily out of empathy and concern for persons who may have suffered as a result of sexual abuse by a member of the clergy. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany discourages any celebration or publicity that would make reference to the former status as priest or deacon of a person who was removed from his ministerial position following the conclusion of an investigation into the allegation.

Diocese Director of Communications Ken Goldfarb even added that Purcell would not be dressed in clerical clothing during his funeral because he was permanently removed from his position. That wasn’t the only way they were distancing themselves from him:

“The words ‘Father’ or ‘Reverend’ are not supposed to be used in an obituary,” Goldfarb said. “We were not consulted in any way concerning the obituary, and that we were totally unaware of its contents until it appeared in print.”

“This is the first situation that we’ve encountered where an obituary ran contrary to our policy,” he said. “We are reviewing our policy to determine how we might be able to avoid this circumstance in the future.”

Wow. I have to say, that’s a welcome sign from Church officials. It’s not often we hear about them doing the right things in the wake of an abuse scandal, but this reaction to Purcell’s death — made without malice, but with a focus on his victims — struck exactly the right note.

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