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When a Priest Died, Something Very Controversial Was Missing From His Obituary That 'Disturbed' the Church 'Deeply


"Editorial employees have no control over the content in those obits."

Photo credit: Shutterstock.com

A Catholic priest's obituary published earlier this month glowingly covered his achievements and "ecumenical efforts," but it left out an important detail: the Rev. Robert H. Purcell was accused of sexual abuse and officially removed from ministry by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany.

Photo credit: Shutterstock.com Photo credit: Shutterstock.com

Purcell, who resided in Margaretville, New York, was accused of abuse of a minor and subsequently removed after the Catholic Church investigated claims against him — one that allegedly unfolded as recently as 2001, according to the Watershed Post.

He was never officially convicted of the allegations, though they ended his priestly duties.

An obituary published in numerous New York newspapers failed to mention these details, instead focusing solely on the positive elements of Purcell's life and ministry — something atheist blogger Hemant Mehta dubbed a "glaring omission."

While the obituary caught the attention of some observers, it also drew the ire of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany. Ken Goldfarb, the diocese's communications director, published a letter to newspaper editors saying, "[The obituary] 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."

Goldfarb explained the situation to TheBlaze, noting that any member of the clergy who is accused of abuse first sees his case turned over to authorities and is put on administrative leave while police investigate.

"In the large preponderance of these cases, law enforcement informs us that — because of statue of limitations — [they're] not able to prosecute," he explained.

If a case is dismissed, a review board commissioned by the diocese then examines the matter and the bishop makes a final decision as to the fate of the faith leader in question. In the case of Purcell, Goldfarb said that there were "reasonable grounds" to assume that the allegations held merit.

In this case — and in other incidents like it — these priests are removed from ministry and can no longer publicly present themselves as church leaders. While they sometimes remain priests in the eyes of the church, they can't perform Mass of any kind, as was the case for Purcell.

Goldfarb described this dynamic in his letter, explaining why the diocese had qualms with the obituary and its official mention of Purcell's title.

"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," he wrote.

The statement continued: "Thus a formerly active priest or deacon would not be attired in any clerical clothing or liturgical vestments. Eulogies are also to be avoided as well as any references in obituaries to titles or activities of such clergymen in their former ministerial positions. This would be highly insensitive to the persons who suffered from the abuse during their ministry."

While questions surround why a sanitized obituary was published in the Glens Falls Post Star, among other New York outlets, the newspaper's editor, Ken Tingley, told journalist and media watchdog Jim Romenesko that it "was a paid obituary."

"Editorial employees have no control over the content in those obits," Tingley said. "They are not reviewed by us or edited by us."

A representative for Miller Funeral Home in Roxbury, New York, told TheBlaze that the obituary was submitted by Purcell before his death and that it was written by him and a "friend," though this individual was not named.

(H/T: Friendly Atheist)


Front page image via Shutterstock.com

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