Religion

Devil In the Red Hat: What the Bridgeport Diocese Abuse Report Can’t Say

Cardinal Edward Egan leaves a meeting of cardinals at the Vatican in 2003. (Max Rossi/Reuters)
The problem can’t be treated separately from the larger moral culture of the clergy.

Besides being the bishop of Bridgeport, Conn., and then cardinal archbishop of New York, the Reverend Edward Egan was a monster. Now that he is safely dead, this can be said. And much more. In the Diocese of Bridgeport he was preceded by other monsters, Bishop Walter Curtis and Bishop Lawrence J. Shehan. This was known as a kind of folk wisdom in the diocese and patched together from the years of stomach-turning testimonies and news items. But now, at least some of the truth is documented extensively in a report by a judge and law firm commissioned by the Bridgeport diocese itself.

Those three abovementioned men reigned, between 1953 and 2000, over a diocese in which over 70 priests abused nearly 300 children in various ways. The response of these three men to this reality evolved. One bishop would simply instruct subordinates to handle abusive priests and then not look too much into it. Some shredded and destroyed incriminating documents. Egan perfected the art of legal stonewalling. The report largely vindicates the approach of Egan’s two successors, Archbishop William Lori (now of Baltimore) and the current bishop, Frank Caggiano. Both implemented recommended practices, and the incidence of abuse declined.

The report goes into the consequences of abuse for the victims. Their damaged relationship to the Church, their struggles with depression, and self-harm. A sample quote: “Sir, I do not know what to do or how to handle this. I have carried this with me for many years. . . . With the court case . . . coming to light, I went through the whole painful memories again and again. . . . I have not been able to have sexual relations with my wife for almost a year now. I feel so dirty and ugly inside. . . . Please help me. What should I do?” That quote is captioned: “Adult survivor practicing in another Christian denomination, relating how 35 years earlier, as an eighth-grader, he visited a Catholic parish in the diocese to explore Catholicism, only to be abused by the very priest from whom he sought an introduction to the faith.” It also outlines continuing problems for non-offending priests, in terms of lowered morale.

The report is admirably blunt. Reassignment of priests known to have abused children began under Bishop Sheehan. Bishop Curtis did not remove abusive priests from service and was “undisguisedly indifferent” to child sexual abuse. Egan “took a dismissive, uncaring, and at times threatening attitude toward survivors and survivors’ advocates.” He adopted a “scorched earth litigation strategy” and held a “belief that his principal obligation was to protect the assets of the diocese and to safeguard against what he described as “scandalous” media reports. The report does note that there had been an evolution in our society’s attitudes toward the sexual abuse of children over the period covered but that one constant remained, a conviction that “sexual abuse of children is morally wrong and deeply injurious.”

Most of the abuse happened in the 1960s and ’70s. It was committed by just less than 5 percent of priests in the diocese. A few handfuls of priests committed nearly half of the abusive acts that are known and documented. “Of the known incidents of abuse, 61 percent were perpetrated by 10 frequent-offender priests. In the quarter century of litigation that has resulted from the abuse crisis, those 10 priests’ predatory conduct also accounts for 81% of the approximately $56,000,000 in the settlements paid by the diocese in the many lawsuits brought by survivors.”

For all the work that the compilers of the report have done, it is that last fact that is most unsatisfying, for a reason I’ll come to in a minute. The report treats child abuse as a phenomenon, and the response of the negligent and wicked bishops almost entirely as a problem of management. Rule breakers and criminals, enabled by lax enforcement and defensiveness.

The problem is that it doesn’t actually add up. The top-line numbers are shocking — nearly 300 children abused. The length of time over which their abusers had a free pass from their ecclesiastical superiors ran nearly half a century. But if ten priests committed the majority of offenses, why did bishops ignore and cover them up at such a great cost? Why did roughly 1,500 other priests who served with the offending 4 percent have to suffer their company, the reputation they created for the priesthood, and the damage they caused the Church?

It is on this point that the report is curiously deaf. The report used the word “seminary” only a handful of times, mostly to describe instances of misconduct. A “culture” fewer times than that, in the context of building a better one that protects children.

What was the screening process for admitting candidates to seminary? How was sexual misbehavior of priests with adult women and men handled? What was the larger moral culture of the Catholic clergy like in those days? None of these questions are touched, and they may in fact be beyond the competence of outside lawyers to adjudicate.

Attributing Egan’s behavior to a desire to protect Church assets and from scandal is simply not sufficient to explain his behavior. The report takes at face value reasoning he gave himself in a letter to the Vatican:

It is obvious that there can be no canonical process either for the removal of a diocesan priest from his priestly duties or for the removal of a priest from his parish when there is serious reason to believe that the priest in question is guilty of the sexual violation of children, and especially when he has confessed such a violation to the bishop or a delegate of the bishop. For the bishop who would countenance such a process would be opening the way to the gravest of evils, among them the financial ruin of the diocese which he is to serve.

Of course, the opposite is also true. Tolerating the evil also opens up the diocese to the gravest of evils. Financial ruin, yes, but also the ruination of the Church’s reputation, and of the souls entrusted to it.

Still, the rationale is odd. Egan’s own brother cardinals may care about the bottom line when considering appointments to the curia in Rome or to the real big chair in Rome. But Egan was never very well liked. And no American during his career could possibly expect to become pope. Ultimately, the property never belonged to Egan personally. If the number of offending priests was less than 1 in 20, if the worst of the worst were just ten in all, why tolerate them?

I can only speculate that Egan and his predecessors wanted to protect something even more dear to them than property. Perhaps their own secrets were embedded into a network of moral blackmail. The report is unsatisfying because the phenomenon of clergy sexual abuse and its tolerance by bishops can’t be treated separately from the larger moral culture of the clergy. It can’t be separated from other tolerated phenomena: alcoholism, sexual impropriety with parishioners and other priests, financial wrongdoing, a general “bachelor” culture of laxity and indulgence. It can’t be separated from pride, gossip, wrath, and envy. It can’t be separated from loneliness, boredom, and spiritual aridity. In the case of priests it can’t be separated from right belief and worship, either. The report says that Egan feared scandal and financial setbacks for the corporate body of which he was merely a manager. The report cannot say the other truth, that he plainly did not fear the judgment and wrath of God.

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