National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  July 30, 2004

Priest says case lacks due process

New York archdiocese rejected exculpating evidence, critics say

New York

In May 2002, New York Cardinal Edward Egan suspended Msgr. Charles Kavanagh as a priest of the archdiocese and pastor of St. Raymond’s Parish in the Bronx. The action was based on an allegation by a former seminarian, Daniel Donahue, that Kavanagh had been guilty of “improper conduct” 20 years ago.

According to Kavanagh, however, there was no investigation, which in itself violated his right to due process under canon law. Neither he nor his lawyers have been told what the specific allegations were, nor have they ever received any formal evidence from the archdiocese, he said. Repeated written requests for documentation on any decisions have been refused, according to Kavanagh, and neither he nor his lawyers have ever been informed that his case has been sent to Rome.

In Donahue’s four years at Cathedral Prep Seminary, Kavanagh had been his counselor and spiritual director. In his testimony about “improper conduct” before the archdiocese’s Advisory Board on sexual abuse cases, Donahue said that there was never any sexual contact of any kind between them.

In his review of the case, Martin P. Kafka, a psychiatrist and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, focused on the relationship between Kavanagh and Donahue while at the seminary. In 2003, Kafka had been invited to Rome at the request of the Vatican’s Pontificia Academia Pro Vita as an international expert to help the church address the abuse of children and adolescents by Catholic priests.

According to Kafka, “a close personal relationship between a precocious and emotionally vulnerable adolescent student and athlete (Donahue) and an over-involved single male mentor (Kavanagh) is one in which personal boundaries could be tested and breached or, at least, misperceived. But Monsignor did act as a friend, father figure, mentor and spiritual adviser to many students and this was not unusual at the time, with no evidence of improprieties.

“The acknowledged close personal relationship between them could have led Mr. Donahue to experience boundary confusion and ambiguity regarding Fr. Kavanagh’s motivation. It seems to me that the issue here is whether Fr. Kavanagh’s boundary-blurring provides a sufficient basis to ban him forever from the priesthood. In my opinion, based on the materials presented for review, it does not.”

On Oct. 14 and 15, 2003, at the request of the archdiocese, Michael Higgins, a canon lawyer, first met with Donahue for an interview and then with his wife and Fr. Vincent Bertrand of Missouri.

“Fr. Bertrand and I agreed that we had serious doubt about his credibility and the motives of Mr. Donahue. He stated more than once that there was no sexual contact and then proceeded to contradict his testimony on other matters.”

Finally on Oct. 31, 2003, Kavanagh voluntarily undertook and passed the first of two lie detector tests in New York during which he answered “no” to the four pertinent test questions: Did you ever lay on top of Daniel Donahue? Did you ever sexually touch Daniel Donahue? Did you ever ask Daniel Donahue to have any sexual contact with you? Did you ever fondle anyone’s private parts?

According to Kavanagh and his attorneys, the reports of Kafka and Higgins as well as the results of the two lie detector tests were never sent to Rome by the archdiocese as part of Kavanagh’s file.

On the occasion of Kavanagh’s 40th anniversary as a priest last December, more than 500 of his parishioners signed a petition in support of their pastor. A second petition asking for his reinstatement was sent to Egan in May, and a week later, Egan transferred the two priests at St. Raymond’s to other parishes and appointed a new pastor.

In response to NCR’s request for comment, Egan referred all questions to Joe Zwilling, the cardinal’s spokesman, who was on vacation at the time.

Bishop William McCormick, another member of the Advisory Board, refused comment when asked about Kavanagh’s complaint that there was no due process, no real investigation into the accusations, no formal evidence or testimony and no formal charges against him.

Pamela Hayes, a former sex crimes prosecutor with the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office and a member of the National Review Board created by the U.S. bishops to help develop policy regarding child sexual abuse in the church, told NCR that the treatment of Kavanagh is “one of the greatest injustices feasible.”

“I have a problem with the way the archdiocese has handled this whole investigation,” she said. “This wasn’t a fair and proper investigation and they have never dealt with any exculpating evidence. They’ve made a he-said-he-said thing out of it. What really matters is looking at the evidence and the archdiocese hasn’t done that. The real problem is the procedure, and if the procedure is flawed, then you can’t have due process.

“You just can’t stand by when a good priest is being torn down and slandered. But there’s nothing that the National Review Board can do. The only ones who can do anything about something like this are the local lay review board, the people in the pews and the press.”

“Today, the average priest feels alone and vulnerable,” Kavanagh told NCR. “And he is only a phone call away from an accusation that can ruin his life. All I want is the opportunity to be heard. And if the process is fair, I trust the church.

“I feel so good about my life, which is my church, my family. I’ve been so affirmed by thousands of people who believe in me and in my priesthood. I feel that my integrity is intact and I am proud of my years of service.

“I recently met with a priest who is also on leave and is depressed. I told him that we’ve spent all our lives dealing with people with broken hopes and we’ve always told them that they have to believe in themselves and that God is working in their lives. And now you and I are in that moment and we don’t believe it? If we don’t, it makes our priesthood a lie, and a lie of everything that we ever said or preached. I’m in that moment now but I trust that God is present and that he’s working here in my life.”

Dick Ryan is a freelance writer living in New York.

National Catholic Reporter, July 30, 2004

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