'Undisguisedly indifferent': Bridgeport diocese issues report on its own abuse record

Cardinal Edward Egan US Catholic News 9 1 11 CNA Cardinal Edward Egan, former Bishop of Bridgeport and Archbishop if New York, who died March 5, 2015.

An investigative report on decades of clergy sexual abuse in the Diocese of Bridgeport was published on Tuesday, highlighting failures of past leadership, including by senior Churchmen.

"The abuse crisis has wounded the entire Church, first and foremost the victims and their families but in a larger sense all those affected by the abuse. That includes our many good and faithful priests," stated Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport on Sept. 27, in advance of the report's release.

The report, commissioned by Bishop Caggiano in October of 2018, was the result of an almost year-long investigation by the law firm Pullman & Comley, LLC into clerical sexual abuse of minors and the diocese response to it since its founding.

On Tuesday, Caggiano tweeted that the report "will be painful to read" but it "will also provide another step in the ongoing healing and spiritual renewal of our Diocese."

Overall, 281 individuals were reported as abused by 71 priests in the diocese since 1953, nearly all of the cases involved minors. Just ten priests were responsible for over 60% of the reported incidents. There has been no report of abuse since 2008.

The report found that diocesan leaders knew of such incidents occurring since the beginning of the diocese; cases "ranged from lewd behavior in front of victims to violent assaults." All the instances of abuse covered by the report were violations of state laws.

The report characterized the evolution of handling cases of abuse throughout the decades as a "A Tale of Two Cities" the first five decades of the diocese's history, and what followed after the year 2001.

In the first several decades, when abuse cases peaked in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, bishops kept poor records of clergy abuse-or actively destroyed records.

Former bishops of the diocese, including the future Cardinal Edward Egan, secretly transferred abusers to other parishes and kept them in ministry, refused to meet with many abuse victims, did not establish policies for mandatory reporting of abuse or for removing abusers from ministry, and prioritized the protection of the diocese's reputation and assets over justice, transparency, and accountability.

Bishop Lawrence Shehan, who led the diocese from 1953 to 1961, began transferring abusers without properly notifying the parishes he was sending them to, and a lack of record evidence suggested that "the diocese had no consistent or written policies" during his tenure, the report said.

Bishop Walter Curtis, who followed Shehan and led the diocese for almost 30 years until 1988-during which the number abuse cases peaked-was "undisguisedly indifferent" to abuse claims, abdicated responsibility to respond to them, did not meet with most victims, and "prioritized the avoidance of scandal over the protection of people," the report concluded.

In two cases, Curtis was found to have "recklessly accepted" two transfer priests who would eventually be removed for sexual misconduct-one priest "with a known history of psychiatric illness, alcoholism, and another one who had been dismissed from seminary.

Additionally, Curtis acknowledged that he destroyed records of clergy sexual abuse, the report noted.

Egan, who followed Bishop Curtis in 1988 and led the diocese until 2000, came after the peak in the number of abuse cases but - the report found - his tenure was marked by a "dismissive, uncaring, and at times threatening attitude toward survivors and survivors' advocates."

Egan went on to serve as Archbishop of New York from 2000-2009 and was made a cardinal in 2001 - the same year as Theodore McCarrick. He died in 2015.

In dealing with survivors of abuse, the report found he "followed a scorched-earth litigation policy" that dragged out court battles and "re-victimized survivor plaintiffs," not only taxing diocesan assets in the process but poisoning the Church's standing with the laity and society.

The report also found that Egan "freely acknowledged" that he prioritized diocesan asset preservation and protection against scandal over justice for abuse victims, the report said. Along with Bishops Curtis and Shehan, he continuing transferring known abusers without disclosing the danger to pastors and parishioners.

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In a 1993 letter cited by the report, Egan explained that he refused to take any canonical action against an abuser priest, or to seek to have him removed from ministry because the scandal would be worse for the Church than the abuse.

"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," Egan wrote.

"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."

And although Connecticut had a state mandatory reporting law on abuse by 1971, both Curtis and Egan operated in ignorance or defiance of it until 1990, the report said.

After decades of abuse and cover-up at the diocesan level, Bishop William Lori-now Archbishop of Baltimore-took over in 2001 and, along with Bishop Frank Caggiano, "reversed" this problematic response by instituting mandatory reporting procedures, "zero tolerance" for abusers, and laicization of the worst offenders.

Despite recent reforming efforts, the report concluded that "many in the diocese remain extremely skeptical of healing efforts or have been permanently alienated from the Church."

In preparing the report, investigators reviewed more than 250,000 paper and electronic records and interviewed more than 50 witnesses, including abuse survivors, current and former bishops and staff, priests, attorneys and administrators.

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They noted gaps in evidence from an "inadequate and antiquated" record-keeping system that dated from the founding of the diocese in 1953 until the early 2000s. In addition, various scenarios presented difficulties to obtaining sound evidence of abuse-deceased victims or survivors with decades-old abuse cases and memory lapses.  

"The sexual abuse of children by clergy and the responses to that abuse by the bishops have not occurred in a void. It indisputably violates long-established civil and criminal prohibitions as well as centuries-old canonical prohibitions," the report states.

According to the diocese, the report was initially slated for release in the spring of 2019, but the scope of the investigation required more time.

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