Egan Defends Handling of Abuse Cases

By Rinker Buck
Hartford Courant
March 24, 2002,0,7165270.story?coll=hc-headlines-home

[See also Egan Protected Abusive Priests for links to related articles.]

New York Cardinal Edward M. Egan Saturday defended his handling of sex abuse allegations against priests, saying that after a review by the diocese, his policy was to send them ``immediately to one of the most prominent psychiatric institutions in the nation for evaluation.

``If the conclusions were favorable, he was returned to ministry, in some cases with restrictions, so as to be doubly careful. If they were not favorable, he was not allowed to function as a priest,'' Egan wrote.

In a much-anticipated letter to parishioners released Saturday, Egan also repeated his controversial position that church authorities would not automatically refer reports of sexual abuse by priests to prosecutors.

The letter, made available to parishes throughout the Archdiocese of New York, responded to a March 17 Courant story that revealed that Egan, while bishop of the Bridgeport diocese, allowed priests accused of sexual abuse to continue working in parishes -- and that he did not refer such complaints to prosecutors or police.

Egan also appeared to back away from his earlier charge that the Courant story contained inaccuracies. He had said in a statement Tuesday he would provide a ``detailed outline of how the Archdiocese of New York responds to accusations of sexual abuse,'' and that the original story ``omitted certain key facts and contained inaccuracies.'' He provided no examples of inaccuracies Saturday.

Egan's letter to parishioners Saturday is not much more detailed than his statement Tuesday. Egan repeated the language of his earlier statement, ``strongly encouraging'' anyone with an allegation of sexual abuse to alert the ``proper civil authorities directly and immediately.''

The Archdiocese of New York, however, will not adhere to the same practice. In his letter to parishioners, Egan emphasized that New York church officials will ``review'' reports of sexual abuse to ``determine the validity of each claim.'' Priests can be removed from their ministries only if a report of sexual abuse is ``substantiated'' by church authorities. Egan noticeably avoided committing the church to reporting cases to civil authorities in all cases.

``Should the Archdiocese of New York be approached with an allegation,'' Egan stated in his letter to parishioners, ``we will make the appropriate report to the proper authorities, if there is reasonable cause to suspect abuse and the victim does not oppose the reporting.''

This hedging of church responsibility was roundly criticized last week by New York district attorneys, who pointed out that New York law requires the reporting of sexual abuse allegations to police or prosecutors. They said that trained detectives and social workers are in a better position to determine the merits of a case than church leaders. Egan's position also departs from church policy in other dioceses across the country, which generally support the reporting of abuse cases to civil authorities.

One prominent theologian and outspoken critic of the church's handling of the sexual abuse scandal questioned the soundness of Egan's position after reading his Saturday letter to parishioners. Hartford native Richard McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, and his best-selling book, ``Catholicism,'' is used as a standard text in college courses throughout the country.

``The diocesan lawyers who handled so many of these cases obviously considered them serious because they recommended substantial outlays of money to settle the cases,'' McBrien said. ``There must have been probable cause if they paid money, and thus civil authorities should have been notified.'' McBrien also pointed out that reassigning priests against whom charges of sexual abuse have been received violates an ancient church teaching called pars tutior, Latin for ``the safer course.''

``The safer course for a bishop who has received charges against a priest is for him to never assign that priest again to a public ministry.''

In his Saturday letter, Egan stopped short of specific criticism of the Courant's article on March 17, and instead insisted that three points should have been made in the article. First, Egan said, the ``alleged abuse'' in the Bridgeport cases described by The Courant occurred prior to his appointment as bishop of Bridgeport in 1988. Second, Egan insisted he had followed diocesan policy by referring accused priests for psychiatric evaluation before allowing them to return to their priestly duties. Egan also pointed out that the victims alleging abuse were all adults when they brought their allegations to the diocese.

The Courant story on March 17 stated all of these points.

Joseph Zwilling, the spokesman for the New York archdiocese, denied that Egan was retreating from his original statement that the article ``contained inaccuracies.''

``Cardinal Egan considered the story this past Sunday to be inaccurate,'' Zwilling said. ``These essential points, as outlined in the letter to parishioners, should be known.''

McBrien believes that even for critics of the church's handling of sexual abuse cases, there was at least some comfort regarding Egan's two statements this week.

``Cardinal Egan has been forced to move from a position of `no comment' to one where he's at least attempting to explain his behavior as bishop of Bridgeport and what his policies will be in the Archdiocese of New York.''


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