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New York’s Egan snubs bishops’ lay review board


Members of the national review board overseeing church efforts to eliminate priest sex abuse expressed puzzlement, embarrassment and anger at a recent series of snubs and what appeared to some to be high-handed directives from New York Cardinal Edward Egan.

“I’m taking this personally,” said board member Pamela Hayes, a former prosecutor for corruption in New York City. “He’s given us the distinct impression he’s not going to deal with a board that’s been set up by the U.S. bishops.”

In late December an archdiocesan spokesman informed the board that the cardinal would not be available to meet with them during their meeting in New York City Jan. 16 and 17, would not say Mass for them as they had requested, nor would any of his auxiliary bishops be available for Mass.

Earlier in the month Egan told the board, through another intermediary, that only those on the board who belonged to the Knights of Malta should attend the knights’ gala dinner on Jan. 17, although all board members had been already invited. Furthermore, he did not want Kathleen McChesney, director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection (the investigative arm of the board), to come to New York to speak about her work at the invitation of a local parish.

Joseph Zwilling, director of communications for the New York archdiocese, told NCR, “The cardinal will be happy to travel to Washington, D.C., at any time to meet with the board and will bring any information or documents they wish. Their [the board’s] offices are in Washington and he will meet with them in Washington.” When asked why Egan chose not to meet with the board when they are in his archdiocese, Zwilling repeated the above statement almost word for word. He later said that Egan thinks, “the work of the board is important” and that he plans to meet with them in April in Washington.

Since it was created by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last June as a lay-based review body, board members have met nine times in various cities around the country. “We have spent hundreds of hours and done tons and tons of work on the issues of priest abuse,” said board member Anne Burke, a justice of the Illinois Court of Appeals. “And almost everywhere we’ve gone, the local bishops have been so thoughtful and worked very hard to portray themselves as cooperating with us. They’ve said Mass for us and met with us.” Burke said she could not understand the apparent lack of hospitality on the part of Egan.

Last September Pamela Hayes wrote to Egan notifying him of the New York meeting. She received a warm reply, she said, in which the cardinal said details of his involvement could be worked out later. Meanwhile, Justice Burke, who is a Dame of Malta, along with another board member who is a knight, invited all 13 board members to gather for the dinner to be held the evening of Jan. 17, just after the conclusion of the board’s own meeting. The knights’ annual white-tie gala at the Waldorf-Astoria, regularly draws 800 to 1,000 attendees with tickets at $250 a person. Burke said she and the other Malta members intended to host the full board. Besides Burke, the Malta members on the national review board are William Burleigh, chair and former CEO of E.W. Scripps; Raymond Siegfried, CEO of the NORDAM Group; and Dr. Paul McHugh, head of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. When Burke met Egan at the bishops’ conference in November, she told him of the plans.

Weeks later as the full board was meeting in Covington, Ky., they received a conference call from a high level member of the bishops’ conference, whose name they declined to divulge. He stated that Egan did not want non-knights attending the dinner. The presence of the full board, he said, might cause controversy and might take attention away from the knights’ good works. The spokesman also relayed word that Egan did not want McChesney speaking in New York, though no reason was reportedly given for this order.

“I was thoroughly embarrassed and flabbergasted,” said Hayes. “It created just an awkward feeling for our members. How are we controversial? I thought we were the people trying to solve the controversy.” Burke said it was not just the words but also the tone of the message that had such a chilling effect. “It was as if he didn’t want us in his archdiocese,” she said. As a result, it was agreed by the board that its non-knight members would not attend the dinner.

Later in December when Hayes called the New York archdiocese, she learned neither Egan nor his auxiliaries (three of whom were reportedly at conferences and the fourth in Puerto Rico) would be involved with the January meeting. Egan spokesman Zwilling confirmed to NCR that this was the case. The board subsequently arranged to have a Mass at St. Ignatius Loyola Church in Manhattan.

Egan’s initial rejection of McChesney’s visit to New York is an even more troubling aspect of the cardinal’s conduct, said another review board member who declined to be identified. “One of the mandates of her office is communicating regularly with the public,” he said. “I’m concerned she is being prohibited from carrying out her job. Does he [Egan] even have the authority to do such a thing?”

McChesney, formerly the third-highest-ranking official in the FBI, was hired by the board to check directly on dioceses’ compliance with the regulations on priest abuse cases set forth at the bishops’ meeting in June in Dallas and later amended by the Vatican. She is also to be a kind of liaison with the bishops, the board and the larger church.

At the invitation of parishioners of St. Ignatius Church, McChesney agreed to give a talk there sometime this year. She told NCR she was never directly informed she could not give the talk and declined to discuss the statements of board members concerning the ban. McChesney has met with archdiocesan officials, she said, who “neither encouraged nor discouraged” her from accepting the invitation. In any event, she said she intends to make a presentation at St. Ignatius, though the exact date has not been determined. Egan, she said, is fully aware of her intentions. The pastor of St. Ignatius, Fr. Walter Modrys, said a parishioner invited McChesney with his knowledge and approval. He has had no conversation with church officials on the matter, he said, adding, “This is something the bishops ought to decide. Do they want the people they have appointed to speak to us or not?”

Board member Robert Bennett, a Washington attorney, said, “We should be focusing on the work we have to do and not getting bogged down in this childish nonsense. We need to get the point where we’re all on the same team and the same page.”

Robert McClory is an NCR special report writer.

National Catholic Reporter, January 24, 2003