Egan Is Leaving 'Unfinished Work' on Abuse, Victims Say

By Diana Jean Schemo and David M. Herszenhorn
New York Times
June 16, 2000

The Roman Catholic Church had been struggling with a barrage of accusations across the country of priests molesting children when the dam burst here in 1993, in the diocese led by the man who is to succeed Cardinal John O'Connor as archbishop of New York.

That was the year Jon Fleetwood, Sharon See and Brian Freibott -- along with dozens of other Roman Catholics in Fairfield County who said their parish priests had molested them as children -- sued the Bridgeport Diocese. They contended the diocese had a deliberate policy of ignoring abuse by reassigning problem priests to new parishes, where they continued to prey on children.

The plaintiffs -- 31 of them claiming abuse by 8 priests over more than 30 years -- did not know what to expect from Bishop Edward M. Egan, a canon lawyer who took over the diocese in 1988. Their disappointment was swift and total. Bishop Egan has steadfastly refused to talk about their accusations and has made no overtures to help them heal. And under his leadership, the diocese's lawyers have used aggressive legal tactics to fight the complaints.

Bishop Egan's reaction was in line with that of most other dioceses, which continued the policies of the past despite efforts by the National Conference of Roman Catholic Bishops in the early 1990's to chart a more open, pastoral response.

But that is little consolation to those who say they were abused. "Here's this man who knows what's happened and done nothing to face the problem," Mr. Fleetwood said of Bishop Egan, who will be consecrated as New York's archbishop on Monday. "He's moving on, but we're all stuck with this. There's unfinished work to be done."

These days, Mr. Fleetwood does not look like anybody's prey. Muscles ripple under his dark T-shirt, and a chain tattooed above his biceps gives him a fearsome look. One eyebrow is pierced, and he wears a tangle of black cords and silver amulets around his neck. But his eyes are the vulnerable, sad eyes of a 13-year-old. It was at that age, Mr. Fleetwood said, that the Rev. Charles T. Carr, his priest at St. Thomas Church in Norwalk, began poking and tickling him as he answered phones at the rectory.

The priest had become a friend of his family, attending birthday parties and other gatherings. One day, Mr. Fleetwood said, Father Carr invited him to watch a movie in his bedroom. The tickling reached "my private area," Mr. Fleetwood said. The abuse steadily worsened, he said, and occurred 5 to 10 times over six months.

Later, Mr. Fleetwood said, he would ask himself why the priest picked him. "Why did I have to be the one to see the dark side of the church?" he asked.

Mr. Fleetwood left the church, and practices paganism, which he sees as a nature-based religion that focuses on inner healing. One of the amulets he wears is the Hammer of Thor, symbolizing "strength, power and protection."

Robert G. Golger, a lawyer representing Father Carr and the Rev. W. Phillip Coleman, both of whom are accused of molesting children, said his clients denied having abused youngsters in their parishes. He would not discuss the cases in detail.

The other plaintiffs tell similar stories of trauma and falling away from the church. Ms. See, 35, came forward as part of therapy to rebuild her life, after speaking to a childhood friend, Mr. Freibott, who said he, too, had been molested by their parish priest, the Rev. Raymond S. Pcolka.

In three years of abuse at Holy Name Church in Stratford, Ms. See said, Father Pcolka told her that by submitting, she was sparing Brian from similar treatment. She said the priest, a frequent guest at her family's home, heard her confession after he abused her the first time.

Father Pcolka recently filed papers to represent himself in court. In the past, he has denied the allegations of raping, sodomizing and beating nearly two dozen youngsters, 14 of them plaintiffs. Raymond B. Rubens, who represented Father Pcolka for two days of depositions, said the church had stopped paying the priest's legal bills, leaving him "high and dry."

"I don't think he, down deep in his heart, feels that he did anything wrong in his relations; I think he feels that he was a good priest," Mr. Rubens said. "Father Pcolka believes any kind of physical contact was disciplinary and had nothing to do with any kind of sexual desires." He said the priest, who had walked away from a psychiatric treatment center without diocesan permission, was now caring for his aging mother. "If the diocese would take him back, even in the role of janitor services, he would go back," Mr. Rubens said.

Ms. See said she thought it was not legal issues, but the challenge to the bishop's authority that had kept Bishop Egan from speaking about the wounds caused by abuse at the hands of priests. "I think it's incredible denial, and fear of the loss of power," she said.

In the early 1990's, the national bishops' conference tried to chart a different course. The bishops prepared three volumes, "Restoring Trust: A Pastoral Response to Sexual Abuse," which urged openness in answering accusations of abuse, taking steps to prevent further abuse, and healing the victims through expressions of pastoral concern.

Only a handful of dioceses moved in that direction. In Chicago, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin set up a panel of church officials and lay people to handle accusations of abuse and to advise whether accused priests should be reassigned to other parishes. In Palm Beach, Fla., Bishop Keith Symons publicly apologized to five men he had abused as children, while the St. Petersburg bishop, Robert Lynch, appointed as administrator of the Palm Beach Diocese, won praise for his honesty and sensitivity in facing the victims.

In New York, where Cardinal O'Connor once struggled with similar cases, vicars or other church officials now visit a parish when its priest is accused of abusing a child, on the presumption that "if there's one victim, there's a good chance that there will be multiple victims," said Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese.

"A lot of dioceses are trying to do the right thing, finally," said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, an expert witness in the Bridgeport case who has testified in thousands of sex abuse cases. "But Bridgeport is not one of them."

Father Doyle said the diocese did not respond "in a responsible or Christian manner."

"It's a defensive, antagonistic response where the victims are treated like the enemy," he said.

The diocese, led by Bishop Egan, has moved to block access to church personnel records, argued for court orders to keep information from becoming public, and suspended priests who had repeatedly been accused of abuse only after lawsuits were initiated. It falsely denied prior complaints of abuse made against priests who became targets of the current lawsuits, threatening in one instance to countersue the alleged victims of Father Pcolka for defamation.

And Bishop Egan has refused to address the accusations and has made no overtures to reconcile with Catholics who said priests in the diocese molested them as children. "I'm not going to discuss the issue at this time," the bishop said at a news conference on Monday. "When this is all over, I'll have plenty to say."

Some have suggested that Bishop Egan, who built a reputation as an effective administrator who rescued the diocese from bankruptcy, may have feared that reaching out to victims or taking a more open stance would have heightened the diocese's liability. Mr. Drohan, the spokesman, said, "Once a lawsuit is commenced, an apology is tantamount to an admission of guilt, and counsel would not permit that."

Others suggested that Bishop Egan, who came to his post with scant parish experience, could not appreciate the magnitude of damage caused by sexual abuse of children.

The original group of 31 plaintiffs has dropped to 23 people claiming abuse by 5 priests, because the statute of limitations had expired in some cases, some accused priests had died, and in some instances, the diocese settled out of court. The remaining plaintiffs are seeking $44 million in damages.

In relocating priests under suspicion of abuse, sometimes after psychiatric evaluations, Bishop Egan acted in line with his predecessor, Bishop Walter Curtis. In a sealed deposition that lawyers for the victims were later permitted to discuss in open court, Bishop Curtis was said to have admitted destroying records containing accusations of pedophilia, to give priests a fresh start. Mr. Drohan has called that characterization "outrageous," saying the former bishop destroyed only records that were antiquated.

The diocese has also advanced a novel defense, arguing that priests are independent contractors. A lawyer for the diocese, Joseph T. Sweeney, likened the role of the diocese to that of the courts, which license attorneys but are not responsible for their behavior. The plaintiffs, however, pointed out that judges, unlike bishops, do not tell lawyers where to work.

"I'm astonished that this defense was advanced in Bridgeport, because it's so different from the response in the rest of the country," said the Rev. Andrew M. Greeley, an author and expert on child sexual abuse who is director of the National Opinion Research Council at the University of Chicago. "It seems to me that it's 15 years out of date."

The argument appeared aimed at limiting the damages that victims of abuse could recover by making parishes, rather than the diocese, liable. In court, Mr. Sweeney suggested the magnitude of complaints about priests was so severe it could bring the diocese to its knees. "If we get rolling on this thing," he said, there is potential for the plaintiffs "to bring out enough dirt from the distant past about enough priests to cripple the diocese in its ability to staff local churches. Once the genie is out of the bottle, that's it."

The diocese, backed by the National Conference of Bishops, also argued that allowing the courts to determine the church's responsibility to protect young people from harm violated the First Amendment guarantee of religious liberty. But the Connecticut courts ruled that civil law, not religious, protected children from abuse, whether in school or in church.

Mark Chopko, counsel for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, which filed a brief supporting the diocese in one abuse case, said that bishops generally must juggle the competing demands of protecting church assets, ministering to victims and their families, and doing the same for the accused priests and their families. They must restore trust in the diocese shaken by accusations of abuse, and deal with insurance companies, district attorneys and police investigations. And while the bishop is advised to seek reconciliation, accusations that begin with lawsuits establish an atmosphere of confrontation, he said.

But he added that bishops who made overtures to reconcile victims of abuse were not typically assessed with higher damage awards. On the contrary, Mr. Chopko said, humane responses sometimes forestall a lawsuit. "A lot of litigation can be avoided by paying attention to the good aspects of human behavior," Mr. Chopko said.

Even when lawsuits are already under way, courts have not taken efforts at reconciliation as admissions of guilt, he said. "I've not seen anybody say, 'If you weren't guilty you shouldn't reach out,' " Mr. Chopko said.

Mr. Drohan said the diocese's policy was to review complaints of abuse and, if they were deemed credible, to temporarily suspend the priest from his ministry while he underwent medical evaluation. That evaluation determines whether the priest returns to the ministry "on an unrestricted basis, a restricted basis or not at all," he said.

As Bishop Egan wraps up his business in Bridgeport and prepares to take over the New York Archdiocese, Mr. Fleetwood said he was leaving behind "unfinished business," both legal and spiritual.

Mr. Fleetwood's was to have been the first case to reach trial, in March. But lawyers for seven priests who have been accused of abuse, but who are not named in any lawsuits, have moved to block lawyers for the victims from asking about their history in the diocese.

The move has essentially held up what was to have been Bishop Egan's final deposition in the case. Mr. Fleetwood said he did not hold high hopes for any kind of reconciliation with the church. Asked what he would like to hear from Bishop Egan, he stared at the floor and seemed lost in thought.

"I'd like to sit down in a room with him and Carr and have him admit that he knows what Carr did," he said. "I'd like for him to express some remorse about losing me as a devoted Catholic. I would just love to know that he cares about what went on on holy ground."

As Bishop Egan leaves for his new job, Ms. See, too, said she felt only resentment. "Here goes another bishop involved in this, and he's moving on," she said. "I'm in limbo."


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