By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
NEW YORK — A new report chronicling the history of clerical sexual abuse in the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, features a damning assessment of former Bishop Edward Egan, who would go on to become the Cardinal-Archbishop of New York, arguably the nation’s most important Catholic post.
An independent commission led by retired Connecticut Superior Judge Robert Holzberg released its report
October 1 after a yearlong review, concluding that Egan and his predecessor repeatedly put concern for diocesan assets over attention to victims.
The report describes “a “tale of two cities,” contrasting Egan’s tenure with reforms under Bishops William Lori and Frank Caggiano who have, respectively, led the diocese since, crediting the two prelates with “persistent, meaningful efforts…to restore stability, trust, and faith in the diocese.”
Lori, now the Archbishop of Baltimore, was named as Egan’s successor in 2001 and was then succeeded by Bishop Caggiano, who has led the diocese since 2013. On Sept. 25 Archbishop Lori participated in a high profile event at the University of Notre Dame on the abuse crisis, among other things saying that struggling to deal “with the ugly specter of child abuse” has been the steepest learning curve in his career.
A four-person team from Pullman & Comley, one of the state’s largest law firms, compiled the 250-page report, which states that it is the product of some 250,000 pages and over 50 interviews in hopes of providing a comprehensive account of the diocese’s handling of abuse since 1953.
In that 66-year history, the report states that 281 minors were abused at the hands of 71 priests, an estimated 4.7 percent of priests in the history of the diocese were abusers. Among the 71 priests guilty of abuse, 10 are responsible for 61 percent of the abuse.
Only two cases have been documented in the twenty-first century, one in 2001 and the most recent in 2008.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Holzberg said that 1970 was the year in which abuse peaked and 2005 was the year in which the abuse was first reported, which he noted was “consistent with national research and national numbers.”
Despite the numbers, the report notes that “it is possible that there have been more victims and abusive priests than we have identified,” due to the fact that Bishop Walter Curtiss, who led the diocese from 1961-1988, has admitted to destroying records.
Since its founding, the diocese has paid out $56 million in abuse-related settlements.
In assessing the history, the report is often blunt about the failings of past leaders of the diocese.
“Bishops Curtis and Egan, in particular, failed even to meet with most survivors or their families, which not only sent a clear message of unconcern, but rendered the bishops less likely to be able to understand the personal experiences of those people and therefore to properly respond,” it states.
The report goes on to note that Egan – who led the diocese from 1988 to 2000 – saw it as his task to “to safeguard against what he described as ‘scandalous’ media reports,” and Holzberg criticized what he termed as Egan’s “scorched earth litigation strategy,” which he faulted for re-victimizing survivors of clergy abuse.
In 2000, Pope John Paul II appointed Egan to lead the Archdiocese of New York and created him a cardinal the following year. He retired from the post in 2009 and died at the age of 82 in 2015.
On Tuesday, Bishop Caggiano told reporters he hopes the account will be helpful in restoring trust.
“When you have a wound, you have to clean it out completely or it cannot heal,” he said.
Among recommendations in the report is for the diocese to continue its outreach to survivors, an additional review by the lay review board of priests who have been determined not to be credibly accused, a continued commitment to lay oversight and involvement, and for the diocese to enact clear protocols for handling allegations of abuse or misconduct by its bishop.
Bishop Caggiano said that the diocese commissioned the report in order to offer an independent assessment of how the diocese is complying with the U.S. Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, to ensure that safe environments are being maintained, and to bolster its commitment to transparency.
He went on to assure attendees at the presentation, which included abuse survivors, that he would be working “as quickly as possible” to implement the recommendations.
“Having lived through this dark and sad hour, the Church has been changed perhaps for the rest of our lifetimes and beyond,” Bishop Caggiano said on Tuesday.
He concluded by thanking the review team, noting that as painful as the information in the report may be, he believed it to be an “important and essential step in our ongoing efforts to bring healing to anyone who has been wounded by this scourge.”
The bishop then appealed to “all people of goodwill” to join together to tackle the evils of abuse.
“Let us join together our efforts to create truly safe environments for all of our children, wherever they may be, wherever they find themselves,” he pleaded, “so that we can eradicate this evil and this crime from our midst no matter where it is found, no matter where it lurks in the shadows.”