Documents Show How Ex-Cardinal Handled Conn. Sex Abuse Claims

December 3, 2009

Recently retired New York Cardinal Edward Egan expressed skepticism over sexual abuse allegations against priests when he was a Connecticut bishop a decade ago, saying he found it “marvelous” that so few priests had been accused over the years, according to court documents unsealed this week.

The files, including two depositions of Egan, were made public by a Connecticut court, which unsealed documents in lawsuits filed by 26 people against six priests in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport. The lawsuits were settled in 2001. Five of the priests were eventually banned from the ministry and one died.

“These things happen in such small numbers,” Egan said in a 1999 deposition. “It’s marvelous when you think of the hundreds and hundreds of priests and how very few have even been accused, and how very few have even come close to having anyone prove anything. So it is not a commonplace, by any means at all. It’s a unique and unexpected occurrence.”

The diocese, which covers some of the wealthiest towns in the country as well as Bridgeport, Connecticut’s largest city, has paid out a total of nearly $38 million to settle abuse claims over the years involving allegations by more than 60 people who said they had been molested by priests.

The church had long fought news organizations to keep the material under seal, arguing unsuccessfully that the documents were subject to religious privileges under the First Amendment.

Jason Tremont, one of the attorneys for the clergy abuse victims, said the documents “confirm the mishandling and cover-up of sex abuse claims” by Egan and his predecessor, Bishop Walter Curtis, who died in 1997.

“I believe that Bishop Egan was aware — when he took over and during his tenure — of these complaints, yet in some circumstances let the priests continue and was very aggressive in his defending of these cases and re-victimizing the victims,” Tremont said.

The New York Archdiocese said Tuesday that Egan had “aggressively investigated” all allegations of abuse. Four priests were sent to a top psychiatric institution for treatment and expert evaluation.

In his 1999 deposition, Egan defended his decision to let one priest retain his position despite the accusations against him, saying there was no reason to remove him while the investigation was ongoing.

“We had indications from psychiatrists that he was comporting himself appropriately, and our decision was to continue until we came to further conclusions because of other indications,” he said.

The Bridgeport Diocese said details in the documents had already been shared with the victims through their attorneys before the cases were settled and were extensively reported on by the news media.

The Hartford Courant, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The New York Times asked state and federal courts to make the material public.

Egan, Bridgeport bishop from 1988 to 2000, expressed skepticism when he was pressed about a number of people claiming they were abused by one priest over a long period of time, the deposition shows.

“I am aware that there are a number of people who know one another, some are related to one another, have the same lawyers and so forth,” Egan responded.

Asked about claims made by a dozen plaintiffs, Egan said, “let us remember that the 12 have never been proved to be telling the truth.”

In 1997, in a separate deposition, Egan explained how he would respond when someone brought to his attention an allegation of sexual abuse.

“The way I would operate is, if someone were to come in and say, ‘I have been abused. Has anyone else ever been abused that you can tell me about? and so forth,’ I would say, ‘This is not appropriate discussion for you and me,”‘ Egan said.

Egan also argued with attorneys about the significance of claims against priests, saying he was more interested in proven misdeeds than allegations.

“Claims are one thing,” he said. “One does not take every claim against every human being as a proved misdeed. I’m interested in proved misdeeds.”

Attorneys for the victims pressed Egan on whether he or others in the diocese reported the abuse allegations to authorities. Egan said the allegations were made before he became Bridgeport bishop.

“I trust that they were handled appropriately,” Egan said.

“What did you do to make sure that they had been reported to the appropriate authorities, if anything?” an attorney asked.

“I did nothing to make sure that years ago something was done,” Egan responded. “I had confidence that what needed to be done was done.”

In a July 1995 deposition, Curtis testified he kept “secret files” about priests under a double lock that could only be opened with two keys — one which was kept by him, the other by the vicar general.

He testified that he would destroy documents in those files when he determined they were no longer relevant, such as after a priest had died.

Curtis also testified that he did not view pedophilia as a disease.

“I don’t think I saw it as a permanent condition,” he said. “It was a — more incidental.”

Attorneys for the abuse victims called the release “the tip of the information iceberg of child sexual abuse” in the Bridgeport Diocese.

“Because church lawyers and officials have spent undisclosed amounts of money from various sources to keep these documents secret, we can only assume that they are continuing to hide other important documents about child sexual abuse,” the attorneys said in a statement.

Reports of widespread clergy sex abuse came to light in 2002 when church records in Boston showed that church officials had reports of priests molesting children, but kept the complaints secret while shuffling some priests from parish to parish.

Similar sex abuse complaints were soon uncovered across the country, and waves of lawsuits led to massive settlements, including $660 million settlement in 2007 with more than 500 alleged victims in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and an $85 million settlement in 2003 with more than 550 victims in the Archdiocese of Boston.

Associated Press writers Pat Eaton-Robb in Hartford and Denise Lavoie in Boston contributed to this report.

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