By Kathianne Boniello
Little Neck residents stunned by allegations of child molestation against a former Douglaston priest came to his defense this week, praising Father Joseph Byrns as a good pastor who strived to keep local children out of trouble.
Two brothers, Timothy and Robert Lambert, formerly of Douglaston, said last week that they had told Bishop Thomas Daily, leader of the Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens, in 1998 that they had been sexually abused by Byrns. The brothers, one of whom is now a priest, contend Byrns molested them in separate incidents in the early 1970s while he was a priest at St. Anastasia Church in Douglaston.
Byrns, who is now a priest at St. Rose of Lima Church in Brooklyn, served at St. Anastasia’s on 245th Street and Northern Boulevard from 1969 to 1983. A spokesman for the diocese said the priest strongly denied the abuse allegations during a 1998 investigation by the diocese.
The accusations against Byrns came as Cardinal Edward Egan and Daily reacted to the growing furor over the church’s handling of charges that priests have sexually abused young boys in their congregations.
Little Neck residents said the Byrns they knew was nothing but kind to their children.
One Little Neck woman who asked that her name not be used said “we knew Father Byrns very well. He always tried to keep them out of trouble — he was always great to the children.
“I’m not saying that this didn’t happen,” she said. “But I wouldn’t think it could be possible — the Father Byrns I knew was a caring young man. He was good to everyone.”
Louise Steininger has lived in Little Neck for about 40 years and also had good things to say about Byrns.
“I’m shocked because I cannot believe this,” she said of the allegations against Byrns. “He was a fantastic priest.”
Steininger praised Byrns, whom she said was especially close to her son Edward. Edward Steininger was murdered as an adult during a violent fight with street vendor in Manhattan in 1990, said his mother, who described him as a streetwise youth.
“He always brought gifts to Father Byrns,” Louie Steininger said. “My son is going to turn in his grave.”
Byrns was a baseball coach at St. Anastasia’s, and at least one former athlete expressed shock at the abuse allegations leveled against the priest.
“I don’t believe the story,” said Ralph Russo. “I don’t know what happened — I just don’t believe Father Byrns is capable of that, not the Father Byrns I knew back then.”
Russo said Byrns went out of his way to watch out for neighborhood kids and keep them out of trouble, often taking the children for pizza or lunch after games.
“We weren’t rich kids where we could afford to go places,” Russo said. “We were middle-class kids. He used to take the whole team out for dinner. He was good to everybody.”
Frank DeRosa, a spokesman for the diocese, said last week the priest’s “strong and vehement denials” established his credibility. He pointed out that no other accusations of sexual abuse had been made against Byrns.
Egan and Daily, who together are the spiritual leaders of the city’s Roman Catholic community, issued statements last week responding to the growing scandal.
In a statement Sunday, Egan urged anyone with an allegation of sexual abuse against a priest to city authorities, not the church.
“I regard any accusation of sexual abuse with the utmost seriousness,” he said in the statement. “Should the Archdiocese of New York be approached with an allegation, we will make the appropriate report to the proper authorities; if there is reasonable cause to suspect abuse and the victim does not oppose the reporting. I would strongly encourage, however, anyone who has an allegation of sexual abuse to bring it to the proper civil authorities directly and immediately.”
Daily, in a statement issued March 19, said he will not release information on whether any of his priests have been accused of sexual abuse or how many but he would not discourage victims from gong to the police.
“We take all such allegations very seriously, listening respectfully and with deep sympathy to the stories shared by the victims, knowing how difficulty it must be for them to make such a report,” he said.
Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said in a statement March 22 he expects the Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens to share evidence of criminal conduct by priests with his office.
“Any individual — including a member of the clergy — who molests or otherwise abuses a child has committed an unconscionable act and must be swiftly and vigorously prosecuted,” he said.
Reach reporter Kathianne Boniello by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 146.