Top Cleric Says He'll Continue to Fight Charge of Sex Abuse

By Daniel J. Wakin
New York Times
December 18, 2003

Msgr. Charles M. Kavanagh, the most prominent New York priest caught up in the clerical sex-abuse scandal, acknowledged yesterday that he had had a close, even affectionate relationship with a teenage seminarian, but adamantly denied that it was sexual.

Speaking out for the first time since the Archdiocese of New York suspended him in May 2002, Monsignor Kavanagh expressed remorse for any hurt he might have caused the seminarian who accused him. But he promised to keep fighting for his reinstatement as a Roman Catholic priest in good standing.

"When I gave my life to the church I didn't promise to be perfect," he said. "I stand at a point in my life now, proud of that and innocent of abuse, and also stand there expecting and having the right to expect the church's loyalty and honor."

Monsignor Kavanagh, 67, was once one of the most influential priests in the archdiocese. He ran its fund-raising campaigns, organized the annual Al Smith political dinner, led a major parish -- St. Raymond's in the Bronx -- and even organized Cardinal John J. O'Connor's funeral.

Yesterday, in an interview at the law offices of a supporter, the former State Assemblyman John C. Dearie, the monsignor appeared composed, conveying an air of contrition but also of pride in his priesthood and in the many friends who have come to his support. He said he had passed a lie detector test showing his innocence, and had given the results to the archdiocese.

He wore a black wool sweater with a small hole from a cigar burn over a white turtleneck and dark slacks, an outfit reminiscent of clerical clothes, which he is barred from wearing under his suspension from all public duties as a priest.

He said he had no apologies about what he called an "affectionate" relationship with the young man, Daniel C. Donohue. "We shared our deepest hopes and dreams in terms of vocations and everything else together," the priest said. "I am very conscious of what happens in friendships, and I must have hurt him."

He said his one mistake may have been to be both spiritual adviser and friend.

Cardinal Edward M. Egan suspended Monsignor Kavanagh on the basis of a letter written by Mr. Donohue, who was a student at Cathedral Preparatory Seminary, a high school, from 1978 to 1982. Monsignor Kavanagh was rector there at the time. Since the suspension, the monsignor has been waiting for the cardinal to announce whether he will be allowed to return to the ministry or will be permanently banned.

Monsignor Kavanagh would not criticize the cardinal, but expressed frustration at the delay and what he said was the archdiocese's failure to provide information about his case. When asked if he felt he had been treated fairly by the cardinal, he said, "I understand the climate that the church has to deal with."

He promised to fight to the end, and said he was confident he would be exonerated.

His accuser, Mr. Donohue, now 39, grew up in a large, devout family in Westchester and became one of the best and brightest students at the seminary and later at Cathedral College in Douglaston, N.Y. Some former seminarians and priests have rallied to his side.

He has said in interviews that starting when he was about 15, an intense relationship with Monsignor Kavanagh -- his teacher, rector, spiritual director and confessor -- became sexually charged and led to an emotional and spiritual crisis in his life. He said the priest held hands in his own lap during prayer, gave him hugs that lasted too long and lay on top of him in a sexual way on at least two occasions.

Monsignor Kavanagh said, "There was no sexual contact between us or the intention, and if he read something more into that, then I'm sorry." He acknowledged that he and Mr. Donohue had hugged and held hands in prayer, but denied lying on top of him or putting the teenager's hand in his lap.

Monsignor Kavanagh said he was breaking his silence because he was celebrating his 40th anniversary as a priest at a large reception on Saturday, and knew he would become the subject of news-media attention. The interview also raised the stakes in his struggle to be reinstated by the cardinal, who is acutely sensitive to publicity.

Mr. Donohue has called on the priest to apologize publicly for his actions. Monsignor Kavanagh said that at the reception he would "express my sorrow for any hurt" he had caused.

When reached by telephone in the Northwest, where he lives, Mr. Donohue stood by his accusations. "I have the truth on my side and I'm not afraid," he said. "I only wish this could be viewed and judged in an open arena."

He dismissed the priest's apology for any hurt he had caused. " 'Any' is ambiguous and unspecified," he said. "That could be for stepping on my toe. What is he apologizing for? It's still not clear."

Mr. Kavanagh and his powerful team of supporters -- including Mr. Dearie, the prominent lawyer Robert G. Morvillo, and Michael McKeon, a former spokesman for Gov. George E. Pataki -- are waging a campaign to have him reinstated.

Few priests accused in the nationwide scandal have waged such efforts to clear their name or have had such resources in trying. Monsignor Kavanagh, a standout high school basketball player whose beloved team at St. Raymond's High School is a perennial city power, has many influential and wealthy friends from his work as vicar for development for the archdiocese.

His lawyer has provided the archdiocese with a copy of a letter from a canon law expert, a former priest named Michael Higgins who had met with Mr. Donohue. saying that the former seminarian had denied having any sexual contact with the priest.

An archdiocesan official had referred Mr. Donohue to Mr. Higgins for help with canon law. But the archdiocese now says that was a mistake, because Mr. Higgins took a prosecutorial stance against Mr. Donohue. Mr. Higgins runs an advocacy group for accused priests.

Mr. Donohue let loose with a burst of anger when told of the letter, but declined to comment further.

Monsignor Kavanagh, asked what might have motivated the accusation, said that Mr. Donohue, while in his sophomore year at the seminary college, had a crisis in his vocation and grew angry at the church and its priests. The monsignor said a turning point came when he refused to allow Mr. Donohue to date his niece.

During the interview, the monsignor repeatedly said he did not want to speak ill of Mr. Donohue. The accusation brought him sadness, not anger, he said.

These days, the priest said, he says Mass privately every morning, shuttling between his family, the Westchester home of friends and a room in the Bronx. He reads history, works to raise money for a community center in Parkchester and for a nonprofit charitable foundation, and often attends St. Raymond's games. He also plays about three rounds of golf a week, with a 12 handicap.

Whatever the outcome, he said, he will never escape the pain.

"I'm forever an asterisk, which is phenomenally sad," he said. But, he added, "I know who I am."


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