Secrecy Shrouds Priest's Erie Trial

By Dana Massing
Erie Times-News
February 25, 2006

Closed doors.

Secret proceedings.

A ruling that will decide the future of a priest accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a male student.

The clergy sex-abuse trial of New York Monsignor Charles Kavanagh is coming to the Catholic Diocese of Erie. But don't expect to find a seat in a courtroom where you can listen to testimony from the defendant and his accuser.

Such church trials aren't open to the public. At the most, you'll hear the verdict after it's decided by a panel of canon law judges.

"Once the decision is made, it will be made public," said Monsignor Tom McSweeney, diocesan spokesman

However, the months-long process leading to it will be "private and confidential," he said.

Still unknown are the start date, specific site and judges, although it's been more than a month since the trial was announced.

The "tremendous amount of publicity" led the Archdiocese of New York to request that the trial be moved, said spokesman Joseph Zwilling.

"We did not specify a particular location," he said.

McSweeney didn't know why the Vatican chose Erie for the trial of Kavanagh, a once high-ranking priest from the Bronx. He was suspended after a former male student said they had an inappropriate relationship more than 20 years ago. Kavanagh has denied the charges.

In early January, he was granted a trial by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican body with jurisdiction over cases of sexual abuse of a minor.

"It's a big deal as far as Kavanagh is concerned because it's going to determine his future as a priest," said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a Catholic priest, canon lawyer and abuse victims' advocate.

He has mixed feelings about such trials.

They can provide comfort to some victims, he said.

But the proceedings are still so secretive, said Doyle, who wishes for more openness in the process.

He said the Catholic Church's legal system has no checks and balances.

"The laypeople can only hope that it will be objective and there will be justice," he said.

Also, Doyle said, there's a problem because there are priests who have been accused of sexual abuse of minors and are waiting in limbo for a trial.

Kavanagh, 68, was accused in 2002 but wasn't granted a church trial until this year.

"I think these canonical trials are too little too late," Doyle said.

He said the secrecy surrounding them is nothing new in the Catholic Church.

A canonical trial differs from a criminal or civil one.

A panel of at least three canon law judges will preside. McSweeney said they haven't been chosen yet.

A "promoter of justice," similar to a district attorney, will issue the complaint against Kavanagh. His canon lawyer will respond. The judges will gather evidence and may ask witnesses to come to Erie, Doyle said.

Unlike a criminal trial, in which the judge is the referee, this trial will be run by the judges, who will vote on Kavanagh's fate in secret ballot, Doyle said.

DANA MASSING can be reached at 870-1729 or by e-mail.


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