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Cardinal Egan Supported Priest Accused Of Sexual Abuse

By Michael Powell, Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 11, 2002

NEW YORK, May 10 -- Cardinal Edward Egan of New York testified five years ago that he encouraged a priest to continue working and offered to write him a letter of recommendation even though he knew the priest was an admitted sexual abuser.

Egan, who was bishop of the Bridgeport (Conn.) Diocese at the time, also testified that diocesan priests were "self-employed" and not the bishop's responsibility. And he said that he would not summarily suspend a priest, even in the face of shocking allegations of sexual abuse.

Egan gave his videotaped testimony -- a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post -- in a 1997 lawsuit brought against the diocese by Frank Martinelli. Martinelli testified then that a priest named Laurence Brett had sexually assaulted him three times as a teenager in 1962 and 1963, including biting him during oral sex. The lawsuit ended with a secret monetary settlement.

As cardinal, Egan leads the most powerful Catholic diocese in the United States at a time when church leaders have come under intense criticism for failing to dismiss priests who are pedophiles. In Boston, Cardinal Bernard F. Law is in the midst of an unprecedented deposition during which he has been forced to defend his decisions to transfer a priest accused of sexually molesting children.

In the past month, Egan has written several pastoral letters adopting a zero-tolerance policy toward priests accused of sexual abuse.

"If anyone believes they have information about sexual abuse of a minor by a priest we urge them to go immediately to legal authorities," said Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the New York Archdiocese. "If we receive such information, Cardinal Egan has said that the priest in question would be asked to leave his ministry until the matter is further clarified."

That was not the view expressed by the cardinal five years ago. At that time, Martinelli's attorney asked Egan if he would suspend any priest who was discovered to have sexually assaulted a minor.

"I would have to know the complete circumstances," Egan replied.

The lawyer then laid out a hypothetical case with a fact pattern identical to the Martinelli case. (By this time, Egan was aware of church files showing that Brett had admitted assaulting Martinelli.)

What if this priest was a teacher, the lawyer asked, and sexually assaulted a student and bit the student's penis?

"That would be sufficient cause [for suspension], I'm sure, in many bishops' minds," Egan responded.

Would it be sufficient cause in your mind?

"I would have to know all of the details," Egan replied. "The suggestion is so strange I would want to know more about it."

Arriving in Bridgeport in 1988, Egan inherited a diocese perched on the edge of scandal. His predecessor, Bishop Walter Curtis, has acknowledged destroying files, hushing up accusations and transferring priests accused of sex crimes to other parishes. The Bridgeport Diocese settled complaints against six other priests for about $15 million a year ago, shortly after Egan became cardinal in New York.

Egan agreed to meet with Brett in 1990, apparently after Brett became worried that past allegations might interfere with his work.

Egan testified that at the time of the meeting, he knew Brett had admitted to sexual abuse. Egan added that he believed he directed his aides to ask Curtis, the former bishop, about the specifics of the accusations against the priest, but he testified that he could not recall their answer.

When they met, Brett "made a good impression on me, he spoke with grace," Egan wrote in a memo soon afterward, which he read in his testimony. "I'll be inclined to write [him] a letter encouraging him to go on with his work."

Egan eventually suspended Brett after learning of many more allegations of sexual abuse, and he asked him to leave the active priesthood. Today Brett has been stripped of the ability to give sacraments or work as a minister.

During his testimony -- videotaped because he was out of the country at the time of the trial and edited under the judge's supervision -- Egan was asked about the lines of authority within the diocese. Egan said that priests were individual contractors and did not work for the diocese. "Every priest is self-employed," Egan said. "He pays his taxes four times a year."

He acknowledged, however, that he assigned priests to their jobs and required that they follow his direction on church teachings.

Egan has never directly acknowledged any missteps in Bridgeport or elsewhere. In a recent pastoral letter, he wrote that he "consistently sought and acted upon the best independent advice available to me from medical experts."

And he said: "If in hindsight we also discover that mistakes may have been made as regards prompt removal of priests and assistance to victims, I am deeply sorry."

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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