In depositions, a church leader's view of sex scandals


POSTED: Thursday, December 03, 2009

The deposition was in its fifth grueling hour. The lawyer and the witness had dueled over the meaning of common words, about whether an executive “;supervises”; or “;administers,”; about the difference between a lie and a failure to tell the truth.

Then the lawyer sprang his big question: You could have prevented someone from hurting people and you decided not to. Why?

The witness was Edward M. Egan, then the Roman Catholic bishop of Bridgeport, Conn. The question was about a priest who had been accused of sexually molesting children.

“;I didn't make a decision one way or the other,”; said Egan, whom the lawyer suggested had failed to act quickly against the cleric. “;I kept working on it until I resolved the decision.”;

The exchange is one of hundreds recorded in a vast trove of documents the Diocese of Bridgeport made public on Tuesday after battling in court for seven years to keep them sealed. The archive—more than 12,000 pages of memos, church records and testimony—was gathered for 23 lawsuits, alleging sexual abuse of children by seven priests, that the diocese settled in 2002.

At the heart of it lies the bishop's testimony, in two wide-ranging depositions from 1997 and 1999. Punctuated by legal parsing and frequent exasperation on both sides, transcripts of the videotaped sessions show the man who would become one of the church's most prominent American leaders—the archbishop of New York, and a cardinal—as he navigated a budding scandal that still threatens the church's finances and reputation.

Since 2002, when he moved to New York and nationwide attention focused on the church hierarchy's handling of abuse complaints, Egan has faced troubling accusations about his tenure in Bridgeport: that he allowed priests facing multiple sex abuse allegations to continue working; that he did not refer complaints to criminal authorities, and that he showed little interest in meeting with accusers.

As New York archbishop, Egan adopted policies to aid the investigation and reporting of abuse complaints, and expressed regret in a 2002 letter to parishioners: “;If in hindsight we also discover that mistakes may have been made as regards prompt removal of priests and assistance to victims, I am deeply sorry.”;

But the depositions offer an intimate glimpse of the prelate's perspective as he was first forced to defend his church from accusations of sexual abuse that went as far back as the 1960s, long before he arrived in Bridgeport in 1988. Sometimes ringing in his praise of church policies and priests, the bishop was also a defendant in a lawsuit, clearly constrained in what he could say.

The testimony makes clear that Egan did not consult the man he succeeded, Bishop Walter W. Curtis, about problems in the diocese, even though allegations of sexual abuse were drawing intense publicity around the country. He acknowledged that the diocese rarely delved into abuse complaints by seeking out witnesses or other potential victims, or telling accusers about other complaints against the same priests.

Under questioning, he exhibited his skills as a canon lawyer who worked at the Vatican for more than a decade. He corrected his inquisitors' use of religious terms, politely suggested how questions might be phrased more precisely, and sometimes seemed to run out the clock in his answers to the barrage of hostile inquiries—interrupting to clarify something he said minutes before, or volubly searching his memory for details.

Throughout the testimony, Egan showed himself as an administrator who could be demanding of his staff, but at times felt limited in his ability to remove men from the priesthood despite several abuse complaints.

He emerges as a religious leader with an almost fatalistic view that the truth in sex abuse cases is unknowable. “;You are of the opinion that everything is crystal clear,”; he told a lawyer questioning him about his decisions. “;I am not.”;

The deposition transcripts and other records were sealed when the diocese settled the lawsuits, but The New York Times and three other newspapers sued for their release; the legal fight ended in October, when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the diocese's appeal.

The Diocese of Bridgeport, on its Web site, said the newly released records contained “;old news”; that had already been reported and “;does not reflect the true culture change has been effected across the church regarding our knowledge of and ability to deal with sexual abuse.”; In a statement on behalf of Egan, who retired as archbishop this year, the Archdiocese of New York said that as bishop in Bridgeport, he followed then-standard protocol in permitting some accused priests to resume their duties after being evaluated and cleared to return to work by psychiatrists at an institution in Hartford. When new accusations emerged against those priests, one had already died, one retired in ill health; Egan permitted one to continue working in a limited capacity because he considered the charges unfounded, and removed two from the priesthood.

In the depositions, one of the few moments of ease for Egan occurred early in the first session, on Oct. 7, 1997, in a Bridgeport law office.

He described the arc of a dazzling clerical career: from a seminary outside Chicago to Rome for a doctorate in canon law, then quickly back to Chicago to become secretary to the archbishop, Cardinal John Cody, whom he served until 1971. He returned to Rome as a canon lawyer in prestigious posts under Popes Paul VI and John Paul II, then went to New York as an auxiliary bishop under Cardinal John J. O'Connor in 1985.

But one lawyer, Jason Tremont, turned the bishop's resume into a weapon against him.

“;In fact, you consider yourself—and others consider you—a canon law scholar?”; Tremont asked before launching into a series of questions highlighting the bishop's deep knowledge of the tools available for disciplining errant priests.

It is a recurring theme of the interrogations. Lawyers for the plaintiffs referred repeatedly to Egan's credentials as a church law scholar to question what they consider his failures to crack down on accused abusers. In turn, Egan clearly showed how much his view of the issue was informed by a lawyer's grasp of the rules of liability.

“;Isn't it true that under canon law you have an obligation to supervise the priests within your diocese?”; Tremont asked.

“;I don't know where you get the 'supervise' and so forth,”; the bishop replied. “;I would be hesitant about that.”;

He sparred at one point over the difference between the supervisory and administrative duties; and at another point acknowledged that “;media attention”; to allegations of sexual abuse by priests had already become a serious problem for the church by 1988, when he arrived in Bridgeport, prompting him to take action. Soon after settling in, he said, he codified—in written form—the diocese's “;excellent policies”; for handling sexual abuse complaints, which under previous bishops had been passed along by word-of-mouth.

Even then, Egan played down the importance of the action he had taken to stem a problem which, to him, was not a widespread one. At one point, when the deposition resumed in 1999, he stopped in his description of church policies to challenge the notion that any abuse had actually occurred.

“;Incidentally,”; he said, “;these things don't happen, and we are talking about ifs.”;

“;Forgive me, Father—Bishop,”; replied one lawyer, Cindy Robinson. “;But these things do happen because that's the reason why we're seated here today.”;

She had been asking about two priests with long records of abuse allegations, whom Egan had sought to remove from the priesthood, though both continued working.

“;These things happen in such small numbers,”; the bishop said.

Egan was at his most combative when voicing his belief in the innocence of most accused priests, including one, the Rev. Raymond Pcolka, who was accused by 12 former parishioners of abuses involving oral and anal sex, beatings and verbal assaults.

“;I am not aware of those things,”; said the bishop. “;I am aware of the claims of those things, the allegations of those things. 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.”;

After one complaint against Pcolka surfaced, the bishop sent the priest to the Hartford psychiatric center in 1993. But when the priest checked himself out after 10 days, refusing to return to the diocese, Egan made no effort to remove him from the priesthood and permitted him to continue receiving a stipend and lawyer's fees from the diocese. Of the payments, he said, “;We are not obligated to do that, except that it is a practice that has a certain moral implication.”;

The bishop expressed frustration with the priest's flight. “;No one regrets it more than I, that he left there,”; he said. But had he asked Pcolka to leave the priesthood?

“;I didn't ask him,”; the bishop replied, “;because I knew from his attorney that he would never consider it.”;

Egan resisted the notion of guilt even in the case of one priest, the Rev. Gavin O'Connor, who admitted he had abused three men for years when they were boys. O'Connor agreed to the bishop's request that he leave the priesthood. But in his deposition, the bishop said that did not mean he was guilty.

Returning the priest to the laity “;was not a punishment for an act,”; he said. “;It was an administrative decision of mine about what was best for him and the church.”;

Near the end of the long questioning, Egan and a plaintiff's lawyer came to loggerheads over the meaning of numbers.

“;Bishop Egan, the fact that 19 individuals have come forward and made claims,”; Robinson asked about Pcolka's case. “;You don't consider that to be a significant number of individuals?”;

The bishop waited while his lawyer quibbled over the number 19, then answered that considering there were 360,911 registered Catholics in the diocese, “;I do not consider that a significant segment or factor.”;

“;Would you agree with me, Bishop Egan,”; the lawyer pressed, “;that if one person, one individual, has been affected by the sexual abuse of a clergy member, when that person was a child, that that's far too much to accept in any diocese?”;

“;It would not be a significant portion of the diocese,”; the bishop replied. “;Your question was 'a significant portion of the diocese.”;'

The lawyers were arguing again when the bishop interrupted to clarify his point: “;However, were even one person to have been abused sexually, while that one person could not numerically be categorized as a significant portion,”; he said, “;the activity would be significant and more.”;

At that point, both sides agreed to take a break.