In the end it was not the power of repentance or compassion that compelled the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., to release more than 12,000 pages of documents relating to lawsuits alleging decades of sexual abuse of children by its priests.
It was a court order. The diocese had spent seven years fighting a lawsuit brought by The New York Times and three other newspapers to unseal the records in 23 lawsuits involving accusations against seven priests. The diocese, which settled those cases in 2002, was ready to battle all the way to the United States Supreme Court to keep the archive secret. It lost in October, when the justices declined to hear its appeal.
Much about those cases was known, and the documents do not greatly revise our knowledge about the scandal that engulfed the entire church after erupting in Boston in 2002. The accounts of priests preying on children, being moved among parishes and shielded by their bishops while their accusers were ignored or bullied into silence, are a familiar, awful story.
But still it is hard not to feel a chill reading the testimony from two depositions given in 1997 and 1999 by Edward Egan, who was then bishop of Bridgeport and later named a cardinal and archbishop of New York. As he skirmishes with lawyers, he betrays a distressing tendency to disbelieve accusers and to shuck off blame.
He responds to accounts of abuse not with shame but skepticism, and exhibits the keen instinct for fraternal self-protection that reliably put shepherds ahead of the traumatized flock.
Referring to the Rev. Raymond Pcolka, whom 12 former parishioners accused of abuses involving oral and anal sex and beatings, Bishop Egan said: “I am not aware of those things. I am aware of the claims of those things, the allegations of those things. I am aware that there are a number of people who know one another, some are related to one another, have the same lawyers and so forth.”
Absent in those pages is a sense of understanding of the true scope of the tragedy. Compare Bishop Egan’s words with those of the archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, who, after the release of a recent report detailing years of abuse and cover-ups in Ireland, said:
“The sexual abuse of a child is and always was a crime in civil law; it is and always was a crime in canon law; it is and always was grievously sinful. One of the most heartbreaking aspects of the report is that while church leaders – bishops and religious superiors – failed, almost every parent who came to the diocese to report abuse clearly understood the awfulness of what was involved.”
Bishop Egan, with institutional pride, looks at the relatively low rate of proven abuse cases as a sort of perverse accomplishment.
“It’s marvelous,” he said, “when you think of the hundreds and hundreds of priests and how very few have even been accused, and how very few have even come close to having anyone prove anything.”
The New York Times.