Cardinal Egan: Ten Years After
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Editor's note: As the first trial in the Hartford Catholic priest sex abuse scandal is under way (as reported in the Hartford Courant) and new testimony comes to light in how the Hartford archdiocese handled the issue, writer Tom Connor was able to interview former Bridgeport bishop and New York City cardinal Edward Egan, who held a high position within the Catholic church when the abuses were alleged to have happened in the Bridgeport diocese.
Ten years ago this spring, the sexual abuse crisis involving hundreds of Roman Catholic priests and thousands of young victims broke nationally in the media, engulfing dioceses from Boston to Los Angeles but also the Diocese of Bridgeport, where 23 lawsuits against seven local priests were working their way through the courts.
Three years earlier, however, this magazine had reported on long-standing and widespread abuses in the diocese (“Gods and Monsters,” May 1999; link opens a .pdf of the original story), then under the leadership of Bishop Edward Egan. In that article, Egan was portrayed as a wily, coldly-calculating defender of the Church and abusive priests, more corporate lawyer than spiritual guardian. The article revealed that he had let accused priests continue to work in local parishes, authorized payments to victims in exchange for silence agreements, and lied about those payments during a deposition. At the time, he had refused to meet with this writer.
Edward Egan came to Bridgeport in 1988 with impressive credentials: doctorate summa cum laude in Canon Law from the Pontifical Gregorian University in the Vatican City, a judge of the Tribunal of the Sacred Roman Rota, co-chancellor of the Chicago archdiocese where he worked with Dr. Martin Luther King on the Civil Rights marches. And once in Bridgeport, he restored the diocese’s finances; opened schools, immigrant centers, a seminary and a residence for retired priests; and co-founded the Inner-City Foundation for Charity and Education.
Yet long after Pope John Paul II elevated him to Archbishop of New York in 2002, and a year later to Cardinal, his handling of the sexual abuse crisis here has followed him, overshadowing many of his accomplishments.
Earlier this winter, His Eminence agreed to a rare, in-person interview with Connecticut. While the idea was to look back at his career in the full context of his life, the hope was that time and distance had softened the hard-line stance he had taken on the sex-abuse scandal while in Bridgeport.
Retired as Archbishop in 2009 and approaching his 80th birthday, the Cardinal lives in Manhattan in an elegant, five-room apartment on the top floor of chapel-complex he had built on the site of a former convent. Over the course of more two and a half hours, he talked about his years in Rome, his close relationship with John Paul II, his work in the inner cities and schools, and his successes in attracting top executive talent and raising money. Then, out of the blue, he brought up the sexual abuse crisis:
EGAN: You know, I never had one of these sex abuse cases, either in Bridgeport or here (New York). Not one. The newspapers pretend as though what happened under Walter Curtis (Bishop of the Bridgeport diocese from 1961 to 1988) happened to me. Walter was a wonderful, wonderful, dear gentleman. He had gotten very old and they were sitting there. And I took care of them one by one. None of them did anything wrong. One of them spent four years in treatment at the Institute of Living in Hartford. I investigated this and at the end I put him in a convent as an assistant chaplain in Danbury. Only once did I not use the Institute of the Living—I used Johns Hopkins because the man was in Baltimore.
CT Magazine: You mean Laurence Brett (a serial molester who was cycled through eight parishes in the diocese and a family of ten in California before relocating to Maryland, where he was accused of abusing more boys. He was still on the run from the FBI when he died in the Caribbean in 2010).
EGAN: Yep. I sent him to the most expensive place and I did exactly what we were told to do. And as a result, not one of them (the accused priests) did a thing out of line. Those whom I could prove, I got rid of; those whom I couldn’t prove, I didn’t. But I had them under control.
When I left Bridgeport—you can look it up—we had the most priests-to-people of any diocese in the country. Our seminary was the biggest in the nation. I built new schools there. We had a Catholic Charities thing that we did. So we had a wonderful diocese with this terrible thing that was hovering over the entire nation.
I’m not the slightest bit surprised that, of course, the scandal was going to be fun in the news—not fun, but the easiest thing to write about.
CT Magazine: But for a long time nothing had been written—a lot of things had been kept hidden.
EGAN: There really wasn’t much in the way of hidden. I don’t think even now you’re obligated to report them [the abuse cases] in CT.
CT Magazine: I believe you are. What about Fr. Pzolka? (A Stamford priest accused of raping, sodomizing and beating dozens of children. He died in 2009).
EGAN: Of course, that was in the newspaper one thousand times. I arrived in Bridgeport and found out there was a guy that was accused of all this. He never did anything while I was there. I sent him to the Institute of Living. I kept him there and kept him there and he broke his way out and escaped. Could you do anything more for a person you’d never heard of?
I sound very defensive and I don’t want to because I’m very proud of how this thing was handled. I never heard of the man. The same thing with Laurence Brett. In the beginning….I hate to go over this—why are we going over all this again?
CT Magazine: Because clearly this has been a key, a divisive, issue that has challenged the Church.
EGAN: Terrible. But are you surprised that any bishop who lived in that period and had any involvement with that stuff, by even inheriting it, that it wasn’t going to become the focus of the newspapers? I don’t think I should be upset about that, or you should be, or anybody else. The era was such that in every diocese, even someone that had no cases, was going to be beaten up with it.
I tell younger bishops, ‘Don’t let one overriding issue be the focus. Do your job, grow your diocese, strengthen your schools, build your charities, and even it does become an obsession with the media, that’s life.’
So I do think it’s time to get off this subject or at least say that this is a man who in 20 years heading great big dioceses never had a case. We had eight or nine or ten cases that I had to attend to from my predecessor, not from me. That’s never been printed. You couldn’t print that, nobody would ever dare print it, because it ruins the narrative. That is the truth. The narrative is what it’s got to be to sell newspapers.
It just strikes me that you could go around and find out that there were some pretty good things that took place.
CT Magazine: There is no doubt that you did many good things in Bridgeport. But one can not talk to a person in your position, from any diocese in the country, and not ask about this because it has so traumatized the faithful.
EGAN: Well it would be easy to write about without anything else. I’m not the slightest bit surprised that of course the scandal was going to be fun in the news—not fun, but the easiest thing to write about. If you have another bishop in the United States who has the record I have, I’d be happy to know who he is.
CT Magazine: Is there any conflict between being a canon lawyer and a spiritual man, between adhering to the letter of the law as opposed to the heart of the matter?
EGAN: I don’t feel there’s been any. My spiritual side is the only one I really work on. I think the reason we have had the peace we’ve had is because we’ve been a church, not a political organization. I’ve handled politics the way I have with you. You either sense that I’m honest or don’t, you sense that I’m open or don’t—I sense that you are or don’t—and I work the thing out quietly and explain my position and try to win you over to my position. I never, ever go to the press and condemn or even imply a condemnation.
CT Magazine: Back to Bridgeport, has the sex abuse crisis overshadowed everything else you accomplished?
EGAN: Well, the media everywhere made that the whole thing. I never had a case. And I believe that the cases I had were each handled just exactly as they should have been.
I worry that anybody who’s heading anything who doesn’t expect that there’s going to be an emphasis that becomes overshadowing, that’s going to happen. You’ve got to make your peace with that and if you have any sense about yourself, go ahead and do what needs to be done and be successful in that. Now for a priest or Bishop, that’s serving the diocese.
They can talk about sex abuse or talk about their concern about finance—that’s alright. I believe the sex abuse thing was incredibly good.
CT Magazine: Do you mean ‘good’ in that positive changes came about as a result of the crisis?
EGAN: Good that…the record, I think, is an excellent record. And the fact that sex abuse becomes overpowering in people’s eyes, that’s a part of life.
CT Magazine: One criticism of your tenure in the Bridgeport diocese was that you refused to meet with victims of sexual abuse.
EGAN: First of all, I couldn’t apologize for something that happened when I wasn’t there. Furthermore, every one of those cases was in litigation before a court, or threatened to be, and every one was handled correctly. I had the first fellow dismissed and the Holy See didn’t allow us to do that anymore, right?, and I handled every case exactly the right, I never hesitated to have the very finest treatment, the very finest of everything. And not any of them did anything out of line. If I was sure, I couldn’t do anything, if I wasn’t sure, I controlled them. No one could have done any better and if there was any mistake in any of that—I’m sorry—but I don’t think there was any mistake at all.
CT Magazine: In 2002, you wrote a letter to parishioners in which you said, “If in hindsight we discover that mistakes may have been made as regards prompt removal of priests and assistance to victims, I am deeply sorry.”
EGAN: First of all, I should never have said that. I did say if we did anything wrong, I’m sorry, but I don’t think we did anything wrong. But I hate to go back over this. I think there’s more to life than that one issue, especially when I had no cases.
For more reaction to this interview, please check out this recent story from the Connecticut Post.