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Spotlight Report

NYC cardinal denies coverup of abuse in Conn. diocese

He disputes report he let molesters serve in parishes

By Fred Kaplan, Globe Staff, 3/24/2002

Cardinal Edward Egan (AP File Photo)

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Skepticism greets Egan defense

NEW YORK - The nation's most prominent Catholic leader yesterday denied he had covered up sexual abuse by priests while he was a bishop in Connecticut.

Cardinal Edward Egan, head of the New York Archdiocese - the nation's largest, encompassing 2.5 million Catholics - issued his defense in a two-page letter handed to parishioners attending Mass at every church in his realm.

It marked his first response to an article in last Sunday's Hartford Courant that said Egan, during his tenure as bishop of Bridgeport, Conn., from 1988-2000, allowed several priests accused of sexual molestation to continue practicing and never took such allegations to the police.

In yesterday's letter, Egan strongly condemned child abuse and for the first time encouraged anyone with such allegations to take them ''to the proper civil authorities directly and immediately.''

Egan wrote that ''sexual abuse of children is an abomination. It is both immoral and illegal, and I will not tolerate it ... Should any priest sexually abuse a child, he will be removed from pastoral ministry.''

In another passage, he said, ''Should the Archdiocese of New York be approached with an allegation, we will make the appropriate report to the proper authorities.''

He added one caveat: ''... if there is reasonable cause to suspect abuse and the victim does not oppose the reporting.''

When someone reports abuse, he explained, a ''review of the report shall be undertaken to determine the validity of each claim. If the alleged claim appears substantiated, and after consultation with competent archdiocesan officials, the alleged perpetrator will be removed from any function, responsibility, or ministry until the matter is resolved.''

The letter did not indicate who will conduct such a review or which officials will be consulted. Nor does it answer most of the questions raised by the Courant.

Egan, a former judge at the Vatican's Sacred Roman Rota, dealt with them in four crisply legalistic paragraphs.

''First, in every case discussed in the article, the alleged abuse occurred prior to my appointment as Bishop of Bridgeport,'' he wrote.

The Courant story agreed. It said that the abuses occurred in the 1960s to 1980s, but that the victims spoke up about them during Egan's term. The article, based mainly on leaked court documents, dealt with how he handled the accusations.

''Second,'' the letter said, ''the policy and practice that I established for the diocese ... required that any clergy accused of sexual misconduct with a minor was, after preliminary diocese investigation, to be sent immediately to one of the most prominent psychiatric institutions in the nation for evaluation. If the conclusions were favorable, he was returned to ministry, in some cases with restrictions, so as to be doubly careful. If they were not favorable, he was not allowed to function as a priest.''

The Courant reported this policy appeared to be inadequate.

In one case, after Egan appointed the Rev. Charles Carr to be spiritual director at a Catholic high school in Norfolk, Conn., parents came forth to complain that Carr had fondled their young sons while at another school. Egan sent Carr to the Institute of Living, a Hartford psychiatric hospital, for evaluation. Doctors were unable to determine whether Carr's denials were truthful, so Egan allowed Carr to return to his job.

A few months later, after another parent made identical accusations, Egan transferred Carr to be a parish vicar with the restriction that he not minister to children. However, one year later, in 1991, Egan lifted those restrictions.

He finally suspended Carr in 1995 - on the same day that the first of several parents filed a lawsuit against the diocese regarding Carr's activities.

The Courant reported similar stories about two other priests. During depositions in the case of the Rev. Raymond Pcolka, which involved accusations of child abuse from 12 parishioners, Egan testified, ''Let us please remember that the 12 have never been proved to be telling the truth.''

The cardinal's letter yesterday continued: ''Third, in all of the cases, the plaintiffs were already adults represented by attorneys and seeking financial settlements from the diocese.''

The plaintiffs were adults, but they were bringing suit for incidents that had allegedly taken place years earlier, when they were minors. The letter does not say the diocese eventually paid $12 million to settle 26 claims against five priests.

''Fourth,'' Egan wrote, ''inasmuch as they were represented by legal counsel, direct communications between myself and the plaintiffs were precluded.''

This point appears to address the Courant's charge that, in the course of the diocese's investigation, ''accusers were not interviewed, witnesses were not sought, and no attempt was made to learn of other possible victims.''

The Courant article pointed out that Egan had inherited a string of scandals when he took over the Bridgeport diocese and that his predecessor, Bishop Walter Curtis, had deliberately shuffled abusing priests from one parish to another to give them a ''fresh start.'' It also noted that Egan defrocked at least one priest for sexual offenses and that he put in place the first written policy on sexual abuse complaints.

It asserted, however, that Egan ''was slow to suspend or remove priestly powers of some others, even those with multiple complaints against them.''

This past week, New York prosecutors have issued stern statements, demanding church officials bring allegations of criminal behavior to law enforcement right away, instead of conducting internal probes.

Egan's letter, for the first time, agreed. After outlining archdiocesan procedure, he wrote, ''I would strongly encourage ... anyone who has an allegation of sexual abuse to bring it to the proper civil authorities directly and immediately.''

Egan was appointed archbishop of New York - which covers most of New York City, its suburbs, and towns up through the Hudson Valley - in May 2000, and was installed at St. Patrick's Cathedral the following month. He has not yet established a firm public image, exhibiting neither the warm showmanship nor the brash controversy of his predecessor, the late Cardinal John O'Connor.

Before yesterday, Egan's silence about the Courant story provoked anguish and outcry. The New York Daily News deemed his reticence ''patently unacceptable.'' The weekly New York Observer called for his resignation, and some priests privately expressed concern.

This story ran on page A32 of the Boston Globe on 3/24/2002.
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