Institute treating priests says it was misled

Church didn't give psychiatrists data about prior abuse charges

March 24, 2002|By Eric Rich and Elizabeth Hamilton | Eric Rich and Elizabeth Hamilton,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A nationally renowned psychiatric hospital that for years has treated clergy accused of sexual misconduct now says it was deceived by the Roman Catholic Church into providing reports that the church used to keep abusive priests in the ministry.

The church sometimes concealed information about past complaints against clergy sent for treatment and disregarded warnings that the hospital's evaluations should not determine a priest's fitness for parish work, said doctors at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn.

As a result, the institute may have unwittingly provided the clinical cover cited by New York Cardinal Edward M. Egan and other church officials as their reason for not suspending some accused priests, including the defrocked John Geoghan in Boston, accused of molesting more than 130 people.

"In some cases, necessary and pertinent information related to prior sexual misconduct has been withheld from us," said Dr. Harold I. Schwartz, the institute's chief of psychiatry. "In some cases, it would appear that our evaluations have been misconstrued in order to return priests to ministry."

Schwartz spoke of the "surprise we have experienced, to learn only recently as these scandals were emerging in the press, that in so many instances we have been providing treatment to individuals while being so inadequately informed."

He said the institute has decided to require that the church attest, in writing, that it has disclosed any past allegations against priests referred for treatment.

As one of the first major psychiatric hospitals to introduce concepts of spirituality to the treatment of clergy, the Institute of Living became unusually close to the Roman Catholic Church. Scores of priests from all over the country have been treated there.

The institute's criticisms underscore the unease among doctors as it becomes increasingly apparent that various diocesan officials have invoked their evaluations as the reason for allowing abusive priests to continue working.

Just yesterday, in his annual pastoral letter, Egan again cited the institute in defending his handling of sex-abuse cases during his tenure as bishop of the Bridgeport Diocese. He said it was his policy to send priests facing allegations "immediately to one of the most prominent psychiatric institutions in the nation for evaluation."

"If the conclusions were favorable, he was returned to ministry, in some cases with restrictions, so as to be doubly careful," Egan said. "If they were not favorable, he was not allowed to function as a priest."

But Leslie Lothstein, the institute's director of psychology, said that the church often ignored doctors' advice when deciding whether to return priests to work.

"I found that they rarely followed our recommendations," Lothstein said. "They would put them back into work where they still had access to vulnerable populations."

The institute's claims - made in interviews conducted before Egan issued his statement yesterday - raise questions about the church's motives and expectations when seeking treatment.

Court documents reviewed by the Hartford Courant - which contain sealed pretrial testimony from the settled Bridgeport cases - show that the diocese never referred sex-abuse allegations against a priest to civil authorities for investigation. Instead, church officials made clear they believed that an evaluation at the institute would determine the truth of an accusation.

Egan said during a 1999 deposition that he could take little action against an accused priest if doctors did not substantiate the complaint: "We would have to proceed as anyone else would proceed, by presuming innocence until guilt is proved," he said.

A case in point is the Rev. Raymond Pcolka, whom Egan sent to the Institute of Living in 1989, after a mother accused Pcolka of molesting her son years earlier. Egan testified that "an expert of some renown" at the institute concluded "that there was no reason for us to hesitate to allow this person to continue his duty."

What doctors hadn't been told is that Pcolka faced a complaint six years earlier that he molested a 7-year-old girl. Egan told lawyers during his deposition that a 1983 letter containing that accusation had gone missing from Pcolka's personnel file at the diocese.

A spokesman for Egan at the Archdiocese of New York, where Egan was elevated to cardinal last year, did not respond to calls seeking comment. Attorney Joseph Sweeney, who represented Egan during the Bridgeport lawsuits, defended the former bishop's use of the institute's evaluations.

Egan, he said, consulted the Institute of Living every time a priest was accused of sexual misconduct and never went against the advice of professionals there. Sweeney said Egan used his own judgment when deciding whether to remove priests from active ministry, adding that recommendations from doctors were "not the sole factor," but were "probably the most significant factor."

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