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While he resisted compensation for an alleged victim of a disgraced priest, Bridgeport's then-Bishop Edward M. Egan gave the accused clergyman as much as $17,000 to settle bank debts and pay for a criminal-defense lawyer, court documents show.
The unusual payment - made in 1989 after the Rev. Gavin O'Connor had been accused of molesting boys for years and was in the process of leaving the priesthood - was later condemned by the plaintiff's attorney in court as "a payoff" intended to buy O'Connor's silence in the case pending against him and the diocese.
During a March 4, 1998, pretrial hearing, a Hartford Superior Court judge found the hush-money allegation plausible enough to allow testimony about it during the upcoming trial, but the diocese avoided that possibility when it abruptly settled the case for an undisclosed sum the very next day. The court file was sealed and has since been destroyed.
A transcript of the hearing, obtained by The Courant, shows that the diocese argued that church law required Egan to pay O'Connor's personal debts because he was "removing the man's ability to practice his professional calling." The diocese denied that the payment was an inducement for O'Connor to avoid testifying.
The disputed payment has emerged as the latest example of deferential treatment that Egan, now a cardinal and archbishop in New York, exhibited toward several priests accused of sexual misconduct during his tenure in Bridgeport - treatment he didn't extend to the victims of sexual abuse, critics say.
Egan gave thousands of dollars to O'Connor, even though, Egan later testified, he found the allegations against him so substantial that O'Connor became the only accused priest that Egan successfully "laicized" - or defrocked - during his tenure in Bridgeport. At the same time, the diocese aggressively fought O'Connor's accusers in court, battling one complainant for six years before settling.
"What I find grossly lacking is any sense of equitable compassion for the victims," said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a priest who is an expert in canon law and has testified in numerous cases of clergy misconduct.
"Egan did nothing - nothing - for victims in Bridgeport except infuriate them and further victimize them," Doyle said. "I've never seen anybody in my 17 years of dealing with this issue as heartless as Egan, and as callous in his treatment of the victims."
David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests, said the lump-sum cash payment by Egan to O'Connor "raises a red flag" because it was so unusual. However, he said, the current clergy sex-abuse scandal has shown that it is not uncommon for bishops to take steps to assist accused priests in more general ways.
"What the Bridgeport bishop did was no different than what [Boston] Cardinal Bernard Law did repeatedly: enable their personal feelings for the brother priest to cloud their judgment about what's right and what's best for children," said Clohessy.
In a statement issued late Friday, Egan's spokesman, Joseph Zwilling, not only defended Egan's handling of the O'Connor case, but said it was "a textbook example of how to treat a case of sexual abuse of minors by a priest."
"It is outrageous to suggest anything else," Zwilling said.
According to Zwilling, Egan took immediate action to suspend O'Connor within weeks of his appointment as bishop in December 1988, and later personally delivered O'Connor's petition for laicization to Rome. As Egan's lawyer did during the 1998 court hearing, Zwilling defended the cash payment to O'Connor, saying "all bishops are required by canon law to provide for the support of their priests."
Doyle disputed Egan's claims about that requirement. A bishop must provide financial assistance only when a priest is destitute as a result of a penalty imposed on him by the bishop, Doyle said.
In O'Connor's case, the priest was employed as a federal prison chaplain in Arizona in 1989, earning $34,000 to $44,000 a year. He later went to work at a federal prison in San Diego, and retired from the federal prison chaplaincy in 1998, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. Today, he co-owns a real estate office in San Diego.
"[Egan's] not required to pay off his bank loans and he's not required to support him," Doyle said.
O'Connor was accused in two lawsuits of molesting three boys from the same family from 1977 to 1985. One of the boys attempted suicide in 1985, prompting the disclosure of the abuse to the diocese in 1986 by his family.
Two of the brothers sued in 1988, a lawsuit that Zwilling said was settled in 1989 shortly after Egan became bishop of Bridgeport. The third brother sued in 1992, and the diocese fought that case until the settlement in 1998.
Allegations of the payoff that are included in the March 1998 courtroom transcript are also referenced in a chapter of a book written by the presiding judge in the case, Richard Rittenband, and recently excerpted in the Connecticut Law Tribune. In it, Rittenband wrote that "charges of a payoff were too serious to permit a blanket preclusion of testimony."
The plaintiff's attorney, Hubert Santos of Hartford, told Rittenband he had evidence that Egan and his aide, Monsignor Lawrence Bronkiewicz, paid O'Connor between $12,000 and $17,000 around the time the bishop was asking O'Connor to request laicization from the priesthood. Santos cited correspondence from O'Connor to another priest - documents that remain under seal and are unavailable - that he said showed the money was part of a "side deal" to keep O'Connor quiet.
"It's our position that what Bishop Egan and Monsignor Bronkiewicz did here is they bought the silence of Gavin O'Connor," Santos said. "And this is not mere speculation."
Santos suggested that the diocese didn't want O'Connor available for questioning in the case because his testimony would damage the diocese's defense or draw more negative publicity.
"He isn't coming to court because they don't want him in court," Santos said at one point. "So you have a scenario here, a gentleman gets a check, his criminal defense lawyers get a check, he disappears from view."
The attorney for the diocese, Joseph Sweeney, disputed Santos' characterization, saying Egan "could not just throw Gavin O'Connor out like a civil employer would." He also argued that the court had no grounds to even allow Santos to question the church's motivation when dealing with one of its priests, as it might with a non-religious employer.
"He'd like to tar and feather the bishop of the diocese with improper motivations," Sweeney said. "But what [case law] say[s] is that no court in this country can get into the business of weighing and balancing that kind of motivation by a religious organization in dealing with one of its clergy in this context, even ex-clergy who have gone out and been bad boys."
None of the parties in the O'Connor lawsuits or their lawyers would agree to be interviewed because of gag orders imposed as a result of the settlements. Reached at his office in San Diego earlier this week, O'Connor refused to comment about the payments.
Although none of those involved in the case would talk about it, and many of the sealed case files have long since been destroyed, a 1992 deposition of the oldest victim, obtained by The Courant, describes the accusations in vivid detail.
According to the victim, O'Connor began fondling him in 1977 when he was 12, after striking up a relationship with his family, which attended St. Joseph's church in Shelton. Over time, as O'Connor was transferred to parishes around the diocese, the abuse intensified.
He would spend entire weekends with O'Connor at different rectories, the victim said, in bedrooms that typically contained only one bed. Other priests living in the rectory with O'Connor never questioned the boy's presence and seemed to want to avoid the issue.
The victim said most of his time with O'Connor was spent drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. He testified that the priest would say "a private Mass between the two of us" after their sexual encounters.
He said he did not know O'Connor had also sexually abused his younger brothers until 1985, when one of them attempted suicide and told his mother what the priest had done. The family alerted the diocese in 1986.
By then, O'Connor was a prison chaplain in Illinois. In 1988, the year the family brought its first lawsuit against the Bridgeport diocese on behalf of the younger boys, O'Connor was given his own parish to run in Cobden, Ill.