Panel, Meeting in Secret, Hears Abuse Claim Against Prominent Priest

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

The New York Archdiocese's review panel on clerical abuse sat on one side of the table. A former seminarian and 10 members of his committed Roman Catholic family sat on the other.

For two and a half tense hours yesterday, according to the family, the two sides struggled to arrive at the truth and some sense of resolution in the case of Msgr. Charles M. Kavanagh, the most prominent member of the archdiocese to be caught up in the priest sexual abuse scandal.

[Photo Caption: Daniel Donohue, a former seminarian who appeared before the New York Archdiocese's review panel on clerical abuse yesterday, has claimed that he was molested by Msgr. Charles M. Kavanagh two decades ago. Photo by Michelle V. Agins.]

The former seminarian who has accused Monsignor Kavanagh of molesting him two decades ago, Daniel Donohue, appeared before the panel as part of its review of sexual abuse charges against priests in the archdiocese. At least nine priests have been suspended in the past year.

The panel posed detailed questions about the encounters between the men, about any possible past molestation of Mr. Donohue, and about letters written by the monsignor that are considered crucial evidence, according to Mr. Donohue and his family.

The family's account of the meeting provided a rare look into the operations of the highly secretive board, one of scores around the country which have been meeting with victims of sexual abuse. Its task is to consider abuse cases and advise Cardinal Edward M. Egan on how to proceed against accused priests.

The proceedings were closed to the news media. The archdiocese said it could not comment on the workings of the board.

The Kavanagh case is highly charged. As the archdiocese's chief fund-raiser and the pastor of St. Raymond's, a large Roman Catholic parish in the Bronx, until his suspension in May, Monsignor Kavanagh had many friends among the powerful and wealthy as well as in the pews. The Donohue siblings are mainly teachers and academics at Catholic institutions; Mr. Donohue, now 37, was a popular student at Cathedral Preparatory Seminary and considered a natural for the priesthood. His parents were prominent parishioners.

Monsignor Kavanagh was suspended shortly after Mr. Donohue charged that he touched him in a sexual way amid an intense friendship in the late 1970's and early 1980's. At the time, Mr. Donohue was at Cathedral Prep and the monsignor was his teacher and spiritual adviser. Monsignor Kavanagh has denied doing anything improper.

After the meeting with the board at archdiocesan offices in Manhattan yesterday, neither side appeared to be satisfied, according to the family.

Mr. Donohue said the board asked him repeatedly for a letter from Monsignor Kavanagh that he said had the tone of a love letter. Mr. Donohue said that he refused to relinquish it because he wanted to meet with Cardinal Egan first, and that the letter was his last bit of leverage. Cardinal Egan has not responded to the request for a meeting.

The cardinal has a policy of not meeting with victims, said Joseph Zwilling, the spokesman for the archdiocese. "This is the best and most straightforward manner of addressing an allegation against a priest," he said.

Mr. Donohue said the meeting left him feeling like the subject of an impersonal bureaucratic exercise.

"What about resolution?" he asked. "What about truth? What about healing? It's not part of the process."

Mr. Donohue said he felt that some of the board members were empathetic, but that others were more analytical, even distant. "I don't walk away hopeful, but I have hope," he said.

At the outset of the meeting, Mr. Donohue spoke for a little more than an hour, laying out his desire for an apology, healing and a meeting with the cardinal, and describing his relationship with Monsignor Kavanagh.

One board member, Judge John F. Keenan of United States District Court in Manhattan, asked what the monsignor was wearing on the two occasions when Mr. Donohue recalled being molested, according to the family's account.

Another board member, Dr. Ralph A. O'Connell, dean of New York Medical College in Valhalla, N.Y., asked if it was possible that Mr. Donohue had dreamed of the abuse, said John White, a brother-in-law of Mr. Donohue's who took notes of the meeting. Mr. O'Connell also asked if Mr. Donohue had been molested previously, Mr. White said. Mr. Donohue said not that he could recall.

A priest on the board, Msgr. Dennis Sullivan, asked if Monsignor Kavanagh had ever touched Mr. Donohue's genitals or kissed him, according to the family, and Mr. Donohue said no.

Afterward, Mr. Donohue's mother, Joan, said it was "heart-wrenching" to listen to her son's account. But she said her faith in the church was not shaken. "To me, a priest is a man and he can make mistakes and commit sins," she said.



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