Blessed Sacrament Priest Removed from Ministry After Allegations of Sexual Impropriety with an Adult

The church website’s picture of Father John Duffell

By Joy Bergmann

Amid allegations of sexual impropriety with an adult, Father John Duffell was removed last week as the pastor of the Church of the Blessed Sacrament at 152 West 71st Street.

In a letter emailed to parishioners, Cardinal Timothy Dolan characterized the news as “unpleasant” and “disturbing.” Dolan said there was an “allegation from the past that [Duffell] abused his position of authority in a violation of his promise of celibacy. This allegation was made first to the District Attorney, and then brought to our attention.”  [Read the full letter here]

Blessed Sacrament officials have not responded to WSR’s request for comment; the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office declined comment.

Catholic News Agency reported that, “the allegation involved serial misconduct over a period of years.” And, “a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York told CNA July 6 that the priest was found guilty of the canonical crime of sexual misconduct in an administrative penal process undertaken by the archdiocese. His suspension from priestly ministry is indefinite.”

Blessed Sacrament also emailed parishioners a letter from Father Duffell. In it he says he was surprised by the “decree of suspension” noting “I did not know that my time would end so quickly.” He continues, “Many years ago there was an allegation of sexual impropriety with an adult which I categorically denied because it was not true.” But Duffell hinted there may be more news to come. “This suspension coincides with my retirement and will give me time to take care of myself while any civil proceedings play out.” [Read the full letter here]

Duffell has not responded to WSR’s request for comment.

Such reticence is atypical. Duffell has a reputation for outspokenness, especially in his support of the LGBTQ community. The Daily News reported Duffell’s close relationship with Lady Gaga, noting his partnership with her Born This Way Foundation, including holding a fundraising dance party in a church hall.

A poster near Blessed Sacrament’s front door makes plain the church’s welcoming stance, stating, “No matter your age, your race, your gender, your sexual orientation, there is a place for you at Blessed Sacrament.”

In 2011, the National Catholic Reporter quoted Duffell at a Fordham University conference on sexuality and the Catholic Church:  [Duffell] said he believes “the church is perhaps the only way of affecting change in the world,” but he added: “The church is not perfect.” To an audience member who asked, in writing, how he should deal with the feeling that he is “broken” after being told he cannot enter the priesthood because he is gay, Duffell answered: “You’re not broken, the system is broken, and therefore you deal with it as a broken system; you lie.”

Lady Gaga’s Instagram picture with Father Duffell

Parishioners on West 71st Street expressed mixed reactions to Duffell’s removal.

“When I got the letter, I was shocked,” said Minerva. She’s been a Blessed Sacrament member for 46 years and sent her kids and grandkids to its schools. “From a person that should represent God. It’s hard to believe.”

“I feel ashamed,” added her husband Luis. “It just keeps happening with the church.”

Dennis has been attending Blessed Sacrament’s lunchtime mass for six years. “It’s a beautiful church,” he said. “I’m so sorry to hear this. I liked him.”

Mother and daughter, Diane and Jackie, churchgoers for five years, gasped upon hearing the news. “That’s horrible!” said Jackie, noting that Father Duffell performed her wedding two years ago. “I find it extremely hard to believe,” added Diane. “Did you ever meet a finer person? He was extremely welcoming to everyone.”

“I can’t say enough good things about him,” said Nora, a decades-long church member. “People are crying. He’s a wonderful man who does so much for others, great kindnesses and helping to solve problems. I hope he’ll be back soon.”

But for Andrea, an occasional churchgoer, his departure was welcomed news. “We stopped attending mass at Blessed Sacrament because of Father Duffell,” she wrote in an email to WSR. “We got tired of his uninspiring and long-winded sermons, particularly his overwrought reprimands for everyone who didn’t come to church regularly. I’m sorry to hear of his troubles if they are not true, but maybe now we will return.”

Thanks to Linda for her assistance with this story. 

NEWS | 23 comments | permalink
    1. Marianne says:

      Sorry to hear of “Duffell’s troubles”, but I have to agree with Andrea on his departure. He did chastise you if you didn’t go to Mass every Sunday (which he did to me personally), and he was continually asking for money. Ho..hum…

      Time for some new blood at Blessed Sacrament!

    2. Angie106 says:

      Marianne.. he was like that at Ascension church on 107th street. I’ve known him all my life.. he saw me grow and my siblings! This is hard to believe.. I have never felt uncomfortable with him and nor did any church goer at Ascension. My heart is broken.

      • Alexandra says:

        We loved him at Ascension. I don’t recall being chastised for missing Mass nor tedious homilies. Of course he asked for money, he is fundraising for good causes in the parish. He was engaged with the community and nonjudgmental. This is so sad.

    3. Cindy says:

      I have NO idea what mass Andrea attended, but I am at mass EVERY week, except for the odd Sunday when I am out of town and have NOT ONCE heard Father Dufell ever chastise anyone for not attending.

      • Marianne says:

        Cindy – Duffell admonished me while he gave me communion saying “I don’t see you here often, come every week”. I was stunned. And that warning had the exact OPPOSITION effect on me. I tried to avoid his mass thereafter. Spirituality is one’s own personal relationship with God. It reminded me 12 years of Catholic schooling was more than enough for me!

        • cindy says:

          Marianne, if the words you used were accurate, that doesn’t sound like admonishment, judgment, chastising. It just sounds as if he wanted to see you more often. As a parishioner, as a member of the church/parish community. I agree that our relationship with God is very personal and doesn’t have much to do with the church itself or a building, but there IS a sense of community and fraternity (that the Pope always speaks of) by attending regularly.

    4. Beth says:

      It is unreasonable to expect adults to “forego sexual expression” (Cardinal Dolan’s terminology) and to live dormitory-style without companionship.

      As a Catholic, I am at a loss as to what we can do as lay people to force this issue given the Church hierarchy’s intransigence. We are constantly asked to pray for vocations, but if priests could be married while being priests and if women were ordained, this would not be an issue. The Church hierarchy is more concerned about maintaining its all-boy clique than the future of the Church.

      Father Duffell is a good person, who wanted to see the Church live up to its ideals. I appreciate his support for women’s equality within the Church and for gay parishioners. It’s hard not to imagine that he was targeted for being outspoken.

      • Ed says:

        Beth, my sentiments exactly. The church is full of contradiction as it lets married priests cross over from Anglicanism, and married deacons become priests.

        To move past the intransigence, we the parishioners need to be steering the conversation.

        That aside, Father Duffell was a wonderfully warm, welcoming person who asked who was new at every mass. His liturgies were thought provoking and he helped me live as a better Catholic. I hope this suspension is temporary.

    5. Meg says:

      I am a long time member of this parish and disgusted by some of the quotes. Father Duffell has been a lovely and inspiring pastor. As his email said, he denies the accusation made by another adult; I believe him. It’s a shame the news, and this article specifically, includes such gossipy negative comments from a small minority. Each mass was often filled because of Duffell’s energy and progressive, positive messaging. He will be missed.

    6. Peggy says:

      In this country we are innocent until proven guilty.Let us all remember that during this difficult time and not be judgemental.

    7. B says:

      I am a parishioner and teach CCD at Blessed Sacrament. I found Fr. Duffell inspiring and promoting Jesus’s message of love and social justice. His homilies help me be a better person and Catholic. He certainly asked for contributions but many were for well needed repairs.

    8. Mo says:

      The Cardinal DID NOT say that Duffell “abused his position of authority in a violation of his promise of celibacy”, but rather that there were allegations of such.

      Big difference. Please be factual in your reporting.

    9. Mark says:

      Nice church and exceptional school… but Father D was never my favorite. He was “welcoming”… as long as you believed in his views. If not, it was very uncomfortable to be around him. Got tired of his political rants at the pulpit, so rarely went back to his masses. “Diversity” includes diversity of opinion. I hope this doesn’t impact the school… as it’s a great learning environment.

    10. patricia Averill says:

      I feel that Father Duffell radiated goodness and was an inspiration to all of us – I hope he is vindicated – If he did have a consensual relationship with an adult, why is the individual going to the district attorney – Isn’t this a mortal sin period? It seems as if someone is looking for money.
      I have had 16 years of catholic education.

    11. Michael says:

      I’m sorry that his career ended like this and I am sure he has done a lot of good for a lot of people. That said, I have to assume that for this to re-surface after all these years on the brink of his retirement must say something about the gravity of the charges or else someone is out to get him. I never liked his Masses because he was too overtly political and was surprised he was never reprimanded for endangering their tax-exempt status. He tried not to name names but everyone knew he was far left of center. But living on the Upper West Side, I am accustomed to the ultra-liberal and exclusionary atmosphere that exists from the classrooms to the local bars. I don’t need it at Mass as well. They had a Jesuit there for a brief second and it was refreshing to have sermons that were both smart, spiritual and apolitical. He didn’t last long under Fr. Duffell.

    12. B says:

      Father Duffell’s generosity of spirit, welcoming to all, recently brought me back to the Catholic Church after decades away. His homilies at Blessed Sacrament radiate humility, encouragement and compassion. Yes, he takes a stand from the pulpit for us all to care for one another, to see each other — inside and outside of the church — as brothers and sisters. Yes, he offers opportunities for us to share our financial resources with others less fortunate. But for me, he has embodied what our society so desperately needs — to love and forgive one another. Walking into Blessed Sacrament without him there breaks my heart.

    13. Laura Willoughby says:

      I have to wonder if this has something to do with his support of the LGBTQ community. My children attended the preschool and our family attended Mass. I am saddened by this turn of events and will miss Father Duffell’s stewardship.

    14. Skylark says:

      Thank God he’s gone! He’s the reason we stopped attending mass for many reasons. I honestly can’t believe he didn’t get kicked out sooner

    15. Young Sally says:

      Duffell has been my family’s go-to priest for many years. He presided over three weddings and at least as many funerals in the past 25-30 years. Well-loved and respected by his colleagues, he is a wonderful man and it is terrible to hear the allegations.

    16. BelMore says:

      Ever since accompanying my elderly mother, a parishioner, to one of Father Duffell’s masses years ago, I,who reject the crumbling Catholic Church with all of its hypocrisy, machiavellian politics and materialism, was inspired by Duffell’s dynamism, and kindness.
      I respect him as a living example of true Christian principles in action.
      What if he has outgrown his former role, and a position where he will serve others more efficiently awaits him?