A Defensive, Dismissive Tone

By Eric Rich and Elizabeth Hamilton
Hartford Courant
March 17, 2002

[See also Egan Protected Abusive Priests, the main article of this feature, with links to related articles.]

Hours into a closed-door interrogation, a plaintiff's attorney presses Bishop Edward M. Egan on his view of claim after claim of sexual abuse made against the same priest from the Diocese of Bridgeport.

Egan knows that the allegations follow a pattern. He knows that the Rev. Raymond Pcolka exercised his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination more than 100 times under questioning about allegations of sodomy, rape and brutality.

But now, under oath in 1999, Egan gives the priest the benefit of the doubt, and casts an unbelieving eye at the claims of a dozen former altar boys and parishioners.

"Let us please remember," Egan says, "that the 12 have never been proved to be telling the truth."

Egan's confidential deposition, a transcript of which was obtained by The Courant, offers a rare glimpse into the style, personality and beliefs of the nation's most visible ecclesiastical figure as he faces questions over his handling of the most difficult issue before the church today.

Egan, now a cardinal and archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York, appears at times combative and legalistic, defensive of diocesan practices dating back years and dismissive of the claims of sexual misconduct brought against priests. He emerges as a figure out of step with today's prevailing views — arguing, for example, that victims have no right to know whether other accusations have been leveled against their abusers.

In one exchange, attorney Cindy Robinson asks Egan if he is aware that the cases against Pcolka involve oral sex, sodomy and beatings.

A: I am not aware of any of those things. I am aware of the claims of those things, the allegations of those things.

Q: And you are clearly aware of the number of people that are making these similar claims during the same period of time, over a long period of time, involving Father Pcolka, correct?

A: I am aware that there are a number of people who know one another, some are related to one another, have the same lawyers and so forth, I am aware of the circumstances, yes.

Eighteen months later, the diocese admitted that "there were incidents of sexual abuse" and paid out about $12 million to settle 26 claims against five priests. Egan's depositions were taken in connection with those cases, which remain sealed by a judge.

Egan largely eschews interviews with the media and thus remains something of a mystery to the general public. Last week, despite pressure to follow the lead of lesser Catholic figures across the country, a spokesman for Egan said the cardinal would have no comment on the sexual abuse crisis rippling out from Boston.

Detractors in New York have called Egan clinical and distant, even imperious. It is an assessment that resonates with the criticism that attached to him in 1997 after he testified publicly at the civil trial of the Rev. Laurence Brett, a Bridgeport priest.

Former altar boy Frank Martinelli sued the diocese, claiming he had been sexually abused as a teenager in the 1960s by Brett, then an assistant pastor at a parish in Stamford. Brett had admitted assaulting children and teenagers across the country; the diocese did not deny that he was a child molester.

But Egan testified that the diocese could not be held responsible because priests are "self-employed." The claim struck some as insensitive to the victim and was blamed, in part, for the jury's verdict against the diocese.

The deposition he later gave at a law office in Bridgeport, during two sessions in 1997 and 1999, reveals a similar affinity for legalistic evasion and semantic parsing.

Under questioning, Egan is reluctant to describe allegations of sexual misconduct as true — even in one case in which he had already taken the extraordinary step of asking the accused priest to sever his ties to the church, a process known as laicization.

Q: Would it be fair to say, Bishop, that you felt that these were more than allegations, that you felt that this was truthful?

A: I felt that they were substantial.

Q: So that you felt that Father [Gavin] O'Connor indeed had — was guilty of sexual misconduct with children?

A: I felt there were substantial allegations, felt the circumstances were such as to make them substantial, and it was my judgment that he would be best reduced to the lay state.

Although the settlement is less than 18 months away, Egan says during his deposition that the actual instances of sexual misconduct by priests are extremely limited — and he appears to imply that false allegations may be more common. During a terse exchange with Robinson he claims there were not more than "two or three" cases of clergy sexual abuse in the diocese before the 1980s.

Q: And are you saying that over time, the instances of clergy sexual abuse have increased?

A: Over time the allegations have increased.

Q: OK. Well, I'd like to —

A: Did you hear that? Not instances — your word was instances.

Q: Bishop, I can hear quite well ...

Again and again, Egan extends the benefit of the doubt to the accused while showing little sympathy for the accusers, and appears to minimize the conduct in question. Consider this exchange about Brett's confessed sexual misconduct in 1964.

Q: He admits apparently that he had oral sex with this young boy and that he actually bit his penis and advised the boy to go to confession elsewhere?

A: Well, I think you're not exactly right. ... It seemed to me that the gentleman in question was an 18-year-old student at Sacred Heart University.

Q: Are you aware of the fact that in December of 1964 that an individual under 21 years of age was a minor in the state of Connecticut?

A: My problem, my clarification, had to do with the expression "a young boy" about an 18-year-old.

Q: A young — all right, a minor, is that better then?

A: Fine.

Brett was sent to New Mexico for treatment after admitting that he bit the young man's penis to prevent him from ejaculating. He was allowed to continue working as a priest elsewhere in the country under the auspices of the Bridgeport diocese.

Egan defends the diocese's handling of the Brett case even though much of it occurred years before his arrival in 1988. In so doing, he spars with the attorneys over the meaning of plain language.

Consider his defense of a 1964 directive to mislead anyone who might inquire about Brett's sudden absence. The memo reads: "A recurrence of hepatitis was to be feigned should anyone ask."

Q: So they would hide the complaint of sexual abuse and tell persons that he had hepatitis and that is why he was not around?

A: I wouldn't read it that way.

Q: You wouldn't?

A: No, I would read it that this man is going away, and if anyone asks, say he's not well, he has hepatitis. That's quite a bit different than saying you are going to hide it.

Brett continued to work, out of state but under the auspices of the Bridgeport diocese, for decades afterward. He did so first with the approval of Bishop Walter Curtis and then, when Egan was appointed, with his consent.

Egan shows a similar unwillingness to concede the apparent intent of letters Brett sent back to the diocese while he was out of state. Attorney Paul Tremont maintains that the letters amount to requests — not granted — to come back, apparently implying that Brett was permitted to serve as a priest as long as he was out of the diocese.

Egan resists the interpretation.

In one early letter, Brett writes: "I still hope to return to Connecticut. In fact, I long for the time when I come back. It has been my understanding that I would be able to do so but I will wait until I hear from you upon this matter."

Q: You indicated that the letter of April 21, 1967 is not a request to come back?

A: I don't read it as a request. ... I would think the text is what the text is.

Brett did eventually return, to meet with Egan, in July 1990. At the time, Brett was working in Baltimore even though his authority as a priest came through the Bridgeport diocese.

Egan, who had testified that he familiarizes himself with priests before he meets them, recorded his thoughts in a church memorandum: "All things considered, he made a good impression. In the course of our conversation, the particulars of his case came out in detail and grace."

Egan is pressed on whether the memorandum indicates that he knew of Brett's sexual history when he found Brett so impressive. In response, Egan claims, essentially, that he can't remember what he meant.

Q: Now what did you mean by that [second sentence]?

A: Well, I think someone could take that case to mean some kind of court case or something of the sort.

Q: No, I am asking what you meant.

A: All I mean is that his story came out in some detail ...

Q: Doesn't that relate to sexual misconduct?

A: I cannot be sure it does ...

Q: So you think that [the memo] had nothing to do with the prior sexual complaints against him?

A: Sir, I — that is my current feeling on this thing.


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