Established in the 19th century, the Archdiocese of New York is the second largest Catholic archdiocese in the country, behind Los Angeles. Since the mid-19th century, the leaders of the Archdiocese have been cardinals, the highest position in the Catholic Church apart from the pope.
New York’s Roman Catholic archdiocese encompasses 296 parishes and serves 2.8 million Catholics in the boroughs of Manhattan, Staten Island and The Bronx — along with Dutchess, Orange, Rockland, Putnam, Dockland, Sullivan, Ulster and Westchester counties.
Unsurprisingly, the Archdiocese of New York has had its share of priests, deacons, nuns, and religious credibly accused of sexually abusing children. As of August 2018, the Archdiocese has paid $60 million to settle these sex abuse claims. The numbers of survivors continues to grow as courageous men and women continue to come forward. As of last summer, the number of survivors within the Archdiocese of New York was 278.
Perhaps the most notorious priest abuser within the Archdiocese of New York became a powerful cardinal in Washington, DC before his retirement and eventual removal from the priesthood through a process the church calls laicization but loosely termed defrocking. It was the credible allegations of sexual abuse within the territory of the Archdiocese of New York that eventually led to the demise of then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. The former archbishop of Washington was permanently removed from the ministry over credible allegations that he sexually abused a teenager while serving as a priest in New York nearly 50 years ago. McCarrick was ordained in New York in 1958 and was a priest of the Archdiocese until 1981, when he became Bishop of Metuchen, NJ. He was the Washington archbishop from 2000 to 2006. While a priest of the archdiocese, his assignments included: serving as assistant chaplain, dean and director of development at The Catholic University of America in Washington (1958-1965); president of the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico (1965-1969); associate secretary for education for the archdiocese and parochial vicar of Blessed Sacrament Parish, Manhattan (1969-1971); secretary to Cardinal Terence J. Cooke (1971-1977); auxiliary bishop (1977-1981).
The McCarrick saga did not start as a child sex abuse issue. Long before allegations of McCarrick’s sexual abuse of a child was brought to light, there were numerous rumors that McCarrick had had numerous sexual encounters with seminarians. (Read Boniface Ramsey’s firsthand account in Commonweal)
The fact that McCarrick’s behavior was an open secret across the country and in Rome among priests, bishops, and cardinals provides a glimpse of the church’s and the Archdiocese of New York’s attitude toward sexual abuse. The McCarrick scandal, coupled with the release last summer of Pennsylvania’s Grand Jury Report implicated other powerful officials of the church in America, namely Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington and formerly of Pittsburgh.
Of course, McCarrick isn’t the only Archdiocese of New York bishop caught up in the sex abuse scandal. Current Archbishop Timothy Dolan’s predecessor, Cardinal Edward Egan, was no stranger to the abuse crisis. Egan was first named auxiliary bishop of New York under then-Cardinal John O’Connor. In 1988, he was named the bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut where he was immediately faced with an abuse scandal within the diocese. He let some priests keep working after they were accused of sexual abuse. In closed testimony in a 1997 lawsuit, he expressed doubt about the veracity of most allegations, saying that “very few have even come close to having anyone prove anything.” One priest he supported was the Rev. Raymond Pcolka, who had been accused as far back as 1966. Father Pcolka’s alleged victims included more than a dozen boys and girls – some as young as 7 – who described being spanked and forced into oral and anal sex. Cardinal Egan kept him on the job until 1992, when another accuser came forward and the priest refused orders to remain at a treatment center. The diocese has since settled lawsuits against Father Pcolka, who refused to answer lawyers’ questions during the litigation. Another priest protected by Cardinal Egan was the Rev. Laurence Brett, who had first admitted abuse in 1964 – biting a boy’s genitals. After Cardinal Egan became Bridgeport’s bishop in the late 1980s, he met Father Brett and endorsed him for continued ministry. “In the course of our conversation,” he wrote, “the particulars of his case came out in detail and with grace.” Further accusations led to Father Brett’s suspension in 1993. In a recent letter to New York parishioners, Cardinal Egan said his policy in Bridgeport was to do a preliminary investigation of accused priests, then send them for psychiatric evaluation and heed doctors’ advice. The Connecticut Postlater showed that the policy wasn’t followed in the case of the Rev. Walter Coleman, who stayed on the job for more than a year after the Bridgeport diocese concluded in early 1994 that he had abused the son of a woman with whom he had an affair and bought a house.
In sworn testimony related to sex abuse lawsuits while Egan was in Bridgeport, the bishop said “very few have even come close to having anyone prove anything” against a priest. In 448 pages of depositions Egan was forced to give he argued with attorneys that only a “remarkably small number” of priests have ever been accused of wrongdoing. “These things [sexual abuse complaints] happen in such small numbers. It’s marvelous when you think of the hundreds and hundreds of priests and how very few have ever been accused, and how very few have even come close to having anyone prove anything,” Egan said. “Claims are one thing,” he said. “One does not take every claim against a human being as a proved misdeed. I’m interested in proved misdeeds.”
Egan became Archbishop of New York in 2000 and his attitude toward survivors of sexual abuse didn’t change. While he publicly claimed to adhere to a strict zero tolerance policy concerning priests accused of sexual abuse, the Archdiocese has published the names of relatively few priests who have been accused. One of the first abuse cases which Egan was forced to confront concerned Rev. John Albino. Egan hid behind his lawyers, refusing to hand over documents and records. Read what journalist Rod Dreher, himself a Catholic convert at the time had to say about the case.
This policy has continued under the current leadership of Cardinal Timothy Dolan who for years successfully fought the passage of the Child Victims Act in Albany. This year, Dolan was beaten by a democratic legislature that passed the legislation and which Governor Cuomo signed into law.
The Child Victims Act will have a profound impact upon the Archdiocese of New York. It is certain that pressure will be brought upon the Archdiocese for more transparency and accountability as survivors are able to bring abuse lawsuits against the Archdiocese.