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New York Cardinal Edward M. Egan, breaking his long-standing silence on sex abuse by members of the clergy, Tuesday released a statement labeling pedophilia an "abomination" and encouraging "anyone who has an allegation to bring it immediately and directly to the civil authorities."
Egan was circumspect, however, on one point that has caused a furor within his diocese and American Catholicism ever since the national wave of reports of sex abuse by priests began to cascade earlier this year: the precise circumstances under which the church is obligated to report cases of abuse.
While saying authorities should be made aware of abuse allegations, Egan stopped short of pledging that the church would, in every case, report them. He allowed that in some circumstances the diocese would decide whether there were sufficient grounds to make such a notification.
"As has been made clear, when there is reasonable cause to suspect that abuse has occurred and if the victims do not oppose the reporting, the Archdiocese will make the appropriate reports to civil authorities," Egan said.
Egan also took the opportunity to respond, for the first time, to a Courant story published Sunday that described how, as bishop of Bridgeport from 1988 to 2000, Egan kept in place several priests facing multiple accusations of sexual abuse and did not report complaints against clergy to the authorities. The story was based on thousands of pages of sealed documents and testimony from civil suits against six priests.
Saying the story "omitted certain key facts and contained inaccuracies," Egan added that he is "confident that these cases were handled appropriately." A spokesman for the cardinal declined to elaborate, saying he would provide more details in a forthcoming letter to New York parishioners.
Egan's one-page statement followed three days of unrelenting criticism by prosecutors, politicians and newspaper columnists, many of whom condemned the church's reflexive policy of silence and its record of not being forthcoming with the public and prosecutors about sexual abuse cases. His response to the crisis -- and the questions raised about his personal handling of the Bridgeport cases -- is important because the archbishop of New York has traditionally been considered the spiritual leader and voice of American Catholicism.
Egan's reluctance to speak out on the issue is in contrast to some other bishops, including his successor in Bridgeport, William Lori, who held a press conference Tuesday night to field questions about how his diocese intends to deal with sex-abuse complaints.
Lori did not criticize Egan's handling of the abuse cases. Instead, Lori praised Egan for his overall leadership, saying, "He left behind a magnificent diocese."
When pressed to explain some of Egan's actions, Lori said: "I'm only here to answer for the way I've responded in the past year and how I'm going to respond in the year going forward. We can all have 20/20 hindsight."
The Courant's story, based in part on transcripts of closed-door testimony by Egan, showed how the then-bishop openly questioned the veracity of a dozen people who accused one priest of rape, molestation and beatings. It also showed how Egan allowed three priests accused of sex abuse to continue working for years, in one case reinstating the Rev. Charles Carr in 1999 despite multiple claims that he fondled young boys.
Lori defrocked Carr last month after yet another complaint was made against him.
Egan also testified, in a 1999 deposition, that since his arrival in Bridgeport more than a decade earlier, neither he nor anyone else in that diocese had referred a single complaint of sex abuse by priests to police.
That appears to contrast with his statement Tuesday, in which he said he believes allegations of abuse should be reported to the authorities and that anyone who brings such n claim to the New York archdiocese will be encouraged to report it. He added that the archdiocese will make such a report when it finds "reasonable cause" to suspect that abuse has occurred.
Unlike in New York, clergy in Connecticut are mandated reporters, meaning they are among a handful of professionals required by law to refer allegations of abuse to either the state Department of Children and Families or the police within 24 hours. State statutes do not restrict the requirement to a certain time period after the alleged abuse.
But Egan's lawyer said during the deposition that he believed there is no legal obligation to report alleged abuses from the past, if the child victim had turned 18 by the time the allegation was made. Jason Tremont, whose law firm, Tremont & Sheldon, represented 26 people who settled lawsuits against the Bridgeport diocese one year ago, disagreed.
Tuesday, Tremont said he believes such cases must be reported even when the alleged victims have turned 18. Doing so, he said, could help prevent future abuses by the same suspect and could allow police to find other victims.
Tremont said Egan's statement Tuesday is woefully lacking and doesn't acknowledge the mistakes that were made during the cardinal's tenure.
"Obviously, I totally disagree with this," he said. "I don't think this statement is sufficient. I don't believe they handled it appropriately. And I think he owes a greater explanation of his actions."
Tremont said the current Bridgeport bishop's statements at a press conference Tuesday back up his belief.
"When Bishop Lori says he's learned from the past and he's changed the way things are done, I think that proves the point," Tremont said.
Jon Fleetwood, a victim who claimed in a lawsuit that he was repeatedly abused as a child by a priest Egan protected, said he found the cardinal's words to be hollow. His lawsuit was one of more than two dozen settled last year when the diocese paid out roughly $12 million.
"Back in the 1990s, he didn't want to believe anybody," said Fleetwood, now 30. "I'm not going to believe anything he says."
As if to symbolize that the flood tide of sex abuse by priests cannot be contained, New York was embroiled in still another case as details emerged that a priest accused in a lawsuit of sexual abuse was still performing ministerial duties at a Manhattan church.
The 1997 lawsuit alleges that the Rev. Henry Mills sexually abused a 17-year-old boy while working at a Bronx church. Even though the archdiocese officially lists Mills as on a "leave of absence," the priest is now assigned to St. Elizabeth Church in Washington Heights. Monsignor Gerald Walsh, the church's pastor, said Mills celebrates Mass, but does not teach at the parish school.
Brooklyn Bishop Thomas Daily was also under mounting pressure this week and is considering changes in his diocese's reporting policy, but had not made a decision as of Tuesday, spokesman Frank DeRosa said. Daily, who once served in Boston, was among the church leaders accused of keeping silent about abuse allegations against defrocked priest John J. Geoghan. The Boston archdiocese agreed last week to pay up to $30 million to 86 people who accused Geoghan of child molestation.
"These lawsuits are occurring because there is no alternative," said John E. Fitzgerald, a senior partner in the law firm that filed suit against the New York priest. "The bishops have been ill-advised by defense attorneys and insurance people. They have developed a policy of channeling things into litigation so there can be secrecy agreements."
Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau was also highly critical of the archdiocese's handling of the crisis and said Tuesday that church leaders have an obligation to report cases to civil authorities regardless of their own determination of innocence or guilt.
"Responsible officials in all religious institutions who have information about child abuse should make certain that information is brought to the attention of law enforcement," Morgenthau said. "I would expect the Archdiocese of New York to make available to my office all allegations of child abuse, including any past allegations."
Former Mayor Ed Koch was among a host of prominent former politicians and present officeholders who criticized the church for promoting a policy under which ecclesiastical authorities, not prosecutors, should decide which cases are brought to light.
"All of these records should be provided to the district attorney, and then let the D.A. decide whether this should be made public," Koch said.
Joseph Zwilling, the spokesman for the archdiocese, said Tuesday evening that he did not know when Egan's letter to New York Catholics would be released. Zwilling said the "salient and essential facts" of the cardinal's complaint about The Courant's story will be "touched upon" then.
Brian Toolan, the editor of the Courant, said in a statement Tuesday: "We have great confidence in the accuracy of our report, since Cardinal Egan's role in the handling of the Bridgeport cases was described through his own sworn testimony in two depositions and diocesan memoranda."
"We've asked the Archdiocese of New York to detail any inaccuracies in our report, but so far they have not responded to our request," Toolan said. "We will continue to seek an interview with his Eminence."
Meanwhile, as new questions are raised about Egan's handling of perhaps the worst crisis in American Catholicism's history, prominent theologians and church historians are openly wondering whether the church's position on celibacy for priests, and the way church leaders are chosen, can last.
"Keep in mind that all of the bishops in the news right now were created by John Paul II," said Notre Dame theologian the Rev. Richard McBrien, whose book, "Catholicism," is now regarded as a standard college text in courses on the church. "These are men who are more loyal to the Vatican and its policies than to the concerns of vulnerable children."
McBrien feels that the public has seen "only the tip of the iceberg" on the sex abuse scandals so far, and that the resulting wave of revulsion and reconsideration among Catholics may well doom the practice of celibacy.
Experts in handling clergy sexual abuse also seem to agree that the new light thrown on the hierarchy's handling of cases will profoundly change the church's policies.
"These cases clearly reveal that the whole emphasis so far has merely been to protect the church," said Willard Sapp, a Kentucky pastoral counselor with national experience in handling sex abuse cases at churches of many denominations. "But silence never works. Silence has been used as an excuse to just move the priest around, give him a change of scenery, and then he just abuses new victims. The public is beginning to see that silence isn't a cure. It's a curse."
Courant Staff Writers Elizabeth Hamilton, Janice d'Arcy and Eric Rich contributed to this story. An Associated Press report is included.