Egan Refuses to Reveal Decisions on Priests

By Daniel J. Wakin
New York Times
June 11, 2003

A year after America's Roman Catholic bishops promised a new openness in addressing a sexual abuse scandal, Cardinal Edward M. Egan has declared that he will not publicly disclose the outcome of the internal investigations of New York Archdiocese priests accused of molesting minors.

The cardinal said in a private meeting last month with the archdiocesan priests' council that he would remain silent on the fate of 13 men suspended since April 2002. A spokesman for the cardinal confirmed the policy yesterday.

"If it becomes public, that's fine, but we will not be the ones to make it public," said the spokesman, Joseph Zwilling.

After local prosecutors opted not to charge 12 of the priests - one is still under review - a lay review board appointed by Cardinal Egan took up their cases. The cardinal has said that after hearing the board's recommendation, he will decide the suspended priest's cases, which could mean returning them to the ministry or barring them for life.

He also said at the May 1 meeting that he preferred to tell the priests his decision once all the cases were reviewed, to "minimize the negative stories" that were inevitable. He changed his mind, though, after most of the priests at the meeting said it was better not to wait to tell priests how their cases were decided. The cardinal still warned that delays were likely.

"If the priest is to be returned to active ministry, he will simply be given a new assignment so that he can quietly resume his priestly work," the cardinal said at the meeting. He said he hoped such a plan would mean that "no harm will be done to any priests." The minutes of the meeting were obtained by The New York Times.

The cardinal's position has infuriated victims of sexual abuse, their advocates and some priests, and it emphasizes many bishops' dilemma in seeking to address the scandal and at the same time protect their priests' rights and privacy.

Victims of abuse and their supporters said this week that the cardinal's decision was a betrayal of the bishops' pledge at their historic meeting in Dallas last year to conduct all issues regarding accused priests in an aboveboard way. They added that by not publicizing the names of priests the church has concluded are sexual abusers, the cardinal's decision could even put children at risk when those those priests undertake new lives.

"Here we are again, same old secrecy, same old cover-it-up," said David Cerulli, co-director of the New York City chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "It's so hard for me to believe after all this time that they haven't learned."

Some priests objected to the cardinal's policy because they felt it unfair not to announce that a priest had been effectively cleared.

"A priest has a right to have his good name re-established," Msgr. Harry J. Byrne, who represents retired priests on the council, said in an interview this week.

Information concerning the 13 priests was turned over to prosecutors last year by the archdiocese. The prosecutors, citing lack of evidence or the statute of limitations, chose not to pursue charges.

Mr. Zwilling defended the cardinal's policy, saying that any public statement about a priest's status, whatever it is, runs the risk of causing more harm by increasing the publicity. He denied that it contradicted the bishops' stated spirit of openness.

"We are doing what we believe is best for all parties involved, and with our primary goal being the protection of children and young people," he said. He said that "internal matters" have delayed notification of priests, but he expected that the cardinal would start talking to them within a couple of weeks.

There is no consistent policy nationwide on how bishops make known their decisions on the future of priests accused of sexual abuse, and it is too early to detect any patterns, national church officials said. Some dioceses have publicly announced that priests accused of abuse have been permanently removed from ministry, although those priests have a right to appeal to a church tribunal.

When priests have been restored to the ministry, the announcements have sometimes been very public. In San Francisco, for example, the diocesan newspaper announced that a priest who was accused of sexual abuse was to return to the pulpit. In the Diocese of San Bernardino in California, a spokesman called local reporters to let them know about another priest was return to the ministry. In other cases, dioceses have confirmed that priests are back on limited duty after reported asked for information.

The minutes of the meeting of the council, a representative body of priests from across the diocese that is supposed to meet monthly, were turned over to The Times by more than one person who believed it was healthy to have the issue aired.

The minutes indicated that priests accused of abuse might ultimately reveal the outcomes of their cases themselves. "His eminence expects that this could happen, especially by someone not being returned to active ministry," the minutes said. In that case, the archdiocese will issue a statement, the cardinal said at the meeting.

In what was described by participants as a long and sometimes tense meeting, some priests challenged the cardinal, saying it was better to be public about his decisions. In another instance, the priests actually voted to oppose the cardinal on the question of whether he should notify priests individually or wait until all 13 cases had been decided. One participant said such a vote was unusual.

Monsignor Byrne recalled the cardinal's belief that word would surface inevitably, and that the better to be public about his decisions. In another instance, the priests actually voted to oppose the cardinal on the question of whether he should notify priests individually or wait until all 13 cases had been decidake a public announcement," he said, adding, "Frankly, I said to the cardinal, the bishops have never been ahead of the curve."

In April 2002, the archdiocese announced that six priests had been removed from their positions without identifying them. Seven more have been suspended since, Mr. Zwilling said. In most cases, their names surfaced in news reports, and the names were confirmed by the archdiocese. When pastors were suspended, the archdiocese sent a representative to discuss the priest's case with parishioners.

One priest who was named by the archdiocese when suspended was Msgr. Charles M. Kavanagh, a pastor and the archdiocese's chief of fund-raising. His accuser, Daniel Donohue, said Cardinal Egan's decision added to his own frustration with the lack of resolution of his case, considered one of the most difficult to decide.

"This is another way for them to not be accountable," he said. "I walk with the truth. If they have truth on their side, there's nothing to fear."


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