Patchogue, NY -- They still greet each other with secret handshakes and use rituals that date from the Middle Ages. But members of the Free and Accepted Masons insist that none of their sanctioned rites has any connection to the death of a man who was shot during an initiation.
''It has nothing to do with what we're about,'' insisted Richard Fletcher, executive secretary of the Masonic Information Center based in Silver Springs, Md.
William James, a father of five, was shot in the face Monday night at the Southside Masonic Lodge during an initiation into a Masons social group called Fellow Craft.
Fletcher said the shooting ''has to be put into context'' and should not be used to disparage the roughly 1.5 million Masons nationwide, who he said participate in many charitable activities.
''It was an accident that happened,'' he said. "You can't blame an entire fraternity that had nothing to do with it. If this were part of some common everyday occurrence that would be one thing. It isn't.''
The man accused of shooting James is Albert Eid, a 76-year-old retiree who police say mistakenly pulled a loaded .32-caliber handgun from his left pants pocket instead of a .22-caliber pistol with blanks that was in his right pocket.
Police called the shooting ''completely accidental,'' but Eid was charged with second-degree manslaughter. He pleaded not guilty and bail was set at $2,500.
Detectives said James, 47, of Medford, was seated in a chair and a small platform holding several metal cans was placed near his head.
Eid stood about 20 feet away holding a gun and a third person stood out of James' view holding a stick.
When the gun was fired, the man with the stick was supposed to knock the cans off the platform to make the inductee think they had been struck by a real bullet.
Police said the stunt was designed to create ''a state of anxiety'' for inductees, and had been used in Patchogue since at least the 1930s.
''I have been a Freemason for 47 years and I have never, in that entire time, heard of anything so off the wall,'' said Fletcher. "That's what makes this so difficult.''
''I have never heard of anything like that,'' agreed Len Henderson, a 30-year member of a lodge in Portsmouth, N.H. "I was extremely upset to think people would think this had anything to do with a legitimate Masonic initiation.''
Eid, described by police as ''quite stunned and . . . distraught,'' has not said publicly why he took a loaded weapon to the ceremony. Authorities said Eid has held a gun license since 1951.
Carl Fitje, grand master of the New York State Freemasons, said in a statement that guns have no role in any sanctioned ceremonies.
''The only secrets we really have anymore are a few handshakes,'' Fitje, a retired New York police detective, said in an interview with The Associated Press last year.
''What they do is sort of like participatory theater,'' said Steven Bullock, an author of several books about Freemasons and a professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Inductees are "put in awkward, odd position. . . . They're supposed to feel strange, feel some measure of uncertainty.''
Bullock and others said it would be unfair to liken the ceremony to hazing.
''There are readings from the Bible, and there's talk of the building tools having moral meanings,'' he said. "The square represents being upright and doing the right thing. The compass is seen as keeping members within moral bounds.''