Egan, Priests to Huddle on Abuse Cases

By Gary Stern
The Journal News [New York]
October 18, 2004

After several difficult and sometimes painful years for Roman Catholic priests, Cardinal Edward Egan has invited the priests of New York to a series of unusual retreats that begin today at a Catskills resort.

Egan promises to make himself available for questions in an informal setting, something that several groups of priests have requested since the sex-abuse crisis of 2002. A growing chorus of New York priests is concerned about whether priests accused of sex abuse have been afforded due process under the church's new and still unclear policy for dealing with allegations of abuse.

"There will be time to talk, to address concerns that the priests might have, to give them an opportunity to speak with the cardinal about what's on their minds," said Joseph Zwilling, Egan's spokesman. "These sessions are also important for the priests to bond more fraternally with their brother priests, as well as with their bishop."

Some priests wonder whether there will be time for a direct give-and-take with their archbishop. Each of the three two-day retreats at the Villa Roma resort in Callicoon, N.Y., will start with lunch, a conference, prayers, dinner and an informal evening gathering before wrapping up the second day with lunch, Mass and another conference.

The guest speaker at each retreat will be Bishop Ignatius Catanello, an auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Brooklyn.

"The agenda is very vague, and a lot of us wonder whether the issues we are concerned about will be addressed," said Monsignor Howard Calkins, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Mount Vernon and vicar of Westchester's south shore. "I think the fellas will raise issues and try to use the forum. If the cardinal will sit down with us, that's a start."

Monsignor Dermot Brennan, pastor of St. Patrick's Church in Yorktown, echoed the feeling of other priests that an honest discussion about due process and priestly morale is more important at this time than having two days of fellowship.

"The cardinal wants to get together so we can get to know each other," Brennan said. "My hope is that those who are there will produce an agenda by asking specific questions about specific issues so that we can get specific responses."

The vast majority of priests agree that abusive priests must not be allowed to continue in ministry, but many feel that the "zero tolerance" approach approved by American bishops in 2002 has left little room for accused priests to defend themselves. The church has said nothing about the fates of more than a dozen New York priests who have been removed from ministry since 2002, even though most were included in an archdiocesan tally released in February of priests who have been found to have committed at least one act of abuse.

Many priests have rallied around Monsignor Charles Kavanagh, a former vicar of development for the archdiocese who was removed from ministry in May 2002; Kavanagh was accused of having an improper relationship with a seminarian two decades before.

The archdiocese is waiting for word from the Vatican on several cases, including Kavanagh's, before announcing its conclusion.

In 2002, American bishops talked about establishing regional or national church courts or tribunals to hear disputed cases against priests. But such courts have not been established, leaving it up to the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to refer cases to local diocesan courts, said Monsignor Ronny Jenkins, an assistant professor of canon law at Catholic University in Washington and an adviser to the U.S. Bishops Conference on sex-abuse cases.

"Establishing tribunals was only a preliminary idea," Jenkins said. "Instead, the congregation in Rome can authorize bishops to hold trials in their dioceses. We recommend that the bishop choose judges from outside his diocese to maintain an appearance of impartiality."

There is little question that this is a challenging period for New York's priests. Not only are they still dealing with the fallout from the sex-abuse scandal, but a worsening shortage of priests is forcing many to work longer hours with less help. The archdiocese is in the early stages of planning a reorganization of parishes that may force priests to take responsibility for several parishes or to move north, where the Catholic population is growing.

The number of diocesan priests has fallen from about 1,200 during the 1960s to fewer than 600 active priests today. The number could fall to fewer than 400 in a decade.

The bishops of New York state returned last week from a regular visit to the Vatican to report on the state of their dioceses. Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany said in several interviews that Pope John Paul II was concerned about the shortage of priests and that Vatican officials urged bishops to seek to improve the morale of priests.

The Rev. John Duffell, a Manhattan priest and former Yonkers pastor who convened one group of priests concerned about due process, said the retreats in the Catskills could be an important step.

"It is positive that this is an attempt on the part of the bishop to get together with his priests," Duffell said. "Many of us wanted something more complete, with participation in the planning process. But the cardinal has indicated that this is something we can do next time."

Monsignor Harry Byrne, a retired priest who celebrates weekend Masses at St. Ann's Church in Ossining, was one of 75 priests to sign a letter to Egan last year asking for a meeting. Byrne said he hoped these retreats would serve as that meeting.

"With the state that the church is in, this is not a time to shoot pool or have cocktails," he said.

Zwilling said that these gatherings were only a first step that would lead to future meetings.

"That's why they are being kept deliberately short this time, lasting only about a day," he said. "These will lay the groundwork for future convocations, which Cardinal Egan is very interested in and can easily be longer."

At least a few hundred priests have registered for one of the retreats, which are today, Wednesday and Oct. 25, Zwilling said.

The Villa Roma is in Sullivan County, in the northwest corner of the 10-county archdiocese. The resort is known for its golf course, evening entertainment and Italian cooking.


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