Albany Diocese condemns obituary and mass for accused former priest

In an unusual move, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany condemned an obituary and mass for a former priest who died last week as "highly insensitive" to the people he is accused of sexually abusing while he was a minister.

Former priest Robert H. Purcell, who died in the Delaware County village of Margaretville on Thursday, July 17, was permanently removed from the ministry in 2011 after an investigation by the Albany Diocese's Sexual Misconduct Review Board into charges that he had sexually abused minors.

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, in a statement emailed to the Watershed Post today.

Purcell was removed from ministry in 2011, after the investigation. At the time, the Diocese said that it was because of an abuse allegation dating back to 1957, 17 years before he was ordained, according to the Albany Times-Union and the Oneonta Daily Star.

However, in a recent correspondence with the Watershed Post, Goldfarb confirmed that there was also a more recent charge of abuse.

A lengthy obituary for Purcell appeared in newspapers across the state last week, celebrating his "monumental" achievements during his 25 years as pastor of the Sacred Heart Church in Margaretville. It did not mention his removal from the ministry because of allegations of sexual abuse of minors.

Yesterday, the Albany Diocese issued a letter to newspapers that ran the obituary expressing "deepest regret."

Obituary was 'highly insensitive'

Celebrating the life and activities of clergymen who are removed from their duties because of allegations of abusing minors is discouraged by the Albany Diocese, as is giving them priestly funeral rites and referring to them by their titles, according to the Diocese's letter.

"This would be highly insensitive to the persons who suffered from the abuse during their ministry," the letter stated. "Unfortunately, and to our deepest regret, this policy was not observed in a recent obituary of the late Robert Purcell."

The letter advised that during funeral rites, a former priest removed from the ministry should "not be attired in any clerical clothing or liturgical vestments."

The letter also stated that a mass held for Purcell on Sunday at his home in Roxbury was conducted "without the approval of the Bishop of Albany."

Another mass was scheduled to be held for Purcell today at the Holy Trinity Church in Cohoes, according to the obituary. Goldfarb told the Watershed Post yesterday that the church hosting the mass had been advised of the Diocese's policy.

To read the full letter, which we have published as a letter to the editor, click here.

Parish celebrates 'Father Bob'

The obituary, which appeared in the Glens Falls Post Star, the Oneonta Daily Star, the Albany Times-Union, and the Catskill Mountain News, referred to Purcell as "Father Bob," and described at length his activities as a pastor in Glens Falls and Margaretville.

"Beloved as a counselor and spiritual mentor to his flock, Father Bob always had uplifting words of reassurance for those seeking guidance," the obituary stated. "One parishioner crystallized the feeling of many; having suffered the devastating loss of his wife in a tragic accident, the gentleman shared his feelings with a friend commenting, '15 minutes with Father Bob is better than hours of conversation with a therapist.'"

Father Steven Scarmozzino, the current pastor of the Catholic Sacred Heart Church in Margaretville, declined to comment when reached today over the phone. He would not say who wrote the obituary, which was issued by the Miller Funeral Home in Roxbury to newspapers, or who presided over the funeral masses.

An unprecedented step

Goldfarb said that this case is the first time in the Albany Diocese that an obituary for a priest who has been found responsible for abusing minors has violated the Diocese's policy about respecting victims of sexual abuse.

After being removed from the ministry in 2011, Purcell was no longer allowed to publicly present himself as a priest, wear clerical garb, or perform public sacraments, according to Goldfarb.

The prohibition on using the trappings of the priesthood extends to obituary and funeral rites, Goldfarb said.

"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."

Purcell's legacy is visible throughout Margaretville. His name appears in the emergency wing of the Margaretville Hospital, which he donated in honor of his parents, and on the Purcell Center, a community center he helped create, which, according to the obituary, is "the pride and joy of parishioners and the community at large."