Priests Contend Cardinal Fails to Support Accused Clerics
By Daniel J. Wakin
The New York Times [New York]
December 20, 2003
In a rare challenge, 74 priests of the Archdiocese of New York indirectly assailed Cardinal Edward M. Egan for failing to support their brother priests accused of sexual abuse, and called for a face-to-face meeting.
"We need to tell you again what you already know; the morale of the New York presbyterate is at an all-time low," the priests said in a petition to the cardinal. The reason, they said, is that the propositions of church law and Pope John Paul II's teachings on a bishop's care of his priests "have not been done."
They said the archdiocese failed to follow proper procedures in dealing with priests accused of sexual abusing minors and that in one case, a priest "seems to have been coerced" into signing a document asking to be removed from the priesthood before any trial. "The impression that you have given is that those men who stand accused are `damaged goods,' and it would be better if they did not return to active ministry," the petition said.
The signers, who call themselves Concerned Priests of New York, include monsignors, retirees and priests from Manhattan, the Bronx and the northern suburbs. There are about 560 active priests in the archdiocese.
The petition was obtained from one of the signers, who declined to be named, and was accompanied by the typewritten names of 69 priests. Five others had agreed to sign but their names were left off, the Rev. Edward G. Byrne of St. Ann's church in Ossining, said yesterday.
Father Byrne was one of six priests who signed a cover letter that accompanied the petition and was dated the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which was Dec. 12. He said the cardinal had yet to respond.
An archdiocesan official said Cardinal Egan had received the letter and passed it on to him, according to another of the six signers, the Rev. Robert J. Norris, pastor of St. Lucy's Church in the Bronx.
However, a spokesman for the archdiocese, Joseph Zwilling, had checked with the cardinal and staff yesterday, and no such letter had been seen. Thus, he said, he could not comment: "It wouldn't be fair to anyone to discuss a letter that we haven't even had a chance to look at yet."
Since Easter 2002, the cardinal has suspended at least 14 priests accused of abuse of various degrees of severity, in some cases involving accusations that were decades old. He has put off an announcement of their ultimate fate several times. This week, Mr. Zwilling said the cardinal had made his decision on the cases, but had sent them to the Vatican for a final review.
Many of the priests have been waiting a year and a half to learn whether they can return to ministry or must leave the priesthood behind. The delay has also angered advocates for the victims of abuse, who say the names of accused molesters should be known.
David Cerulli, director of the New York City chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said he sympathized with the priests to some degree. "I do understand their struggle with Cardinal Egan's secrecy," he said. However, he said that most allegations of abuse had been borne out.
"It's better to err on the side of protecting children than to err on the side of maybe a priest having his name brought down in the eyes of his parishioners," he said.
The cover letter said that priests grieved with the victims of abuse and felt the "corporate shame of our church, of our brother priests, and of the inaction of many of our bishops." The scandal has deeply damaged their integrity as "heralds of a kingdom of justice," it said. "We continue to minister under a cloud that shows no sign of lifting," it went on.
"We also suffer for those priests accused of abusing our young," a suffering that is worsened by the lack of clear ways to determine guilt or innocence, the priests said.
The cardinal, like bishops around the nation, has established a lay review board to evaluate accusations against priests. The board's work has been done in secret, and it has questioned accusers and priests. It makes a recommendation on whether to seek permanent suspension, and the cardinal can then accept or reject the decision, meeting directly with each man. All the cases have also gone before local prosecutors, who generally have found them too far in the past to be prosecuted under the law.
"We have received so much support from the laity but we also need it from you," the six organizers wrote Cardinal Egan.
The petition also asked that the cardinal meet with the accused priests "so that you may hear their needs and listen to their accounts. We need to talk with you, so that we might be an instrument of healing among accused, and accusers alike."
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