By GARY STERN
THE JOURNAL NEWS
(Original publication: October 26, 2006)
Many New York priests say they are baffled that Cardinal Edward Egan is blaming recent criticism of him on untruths spread by unnamed pedophile priests.
Some are particularly concerned that Egan, in a letter to priests, twice singled out Monsignor Howard Calkins of Mount Vernon for criticizing him in the press, despite Calkins' apology to Egan.
"There is amazement on the part of priests that he mentioned Monsignor Calkins twice," one New York priest said yesterday. "It seems totally uncalled for. Howard tried to show some sensitivity and apologized, but you're not given a chance to talk. The whole letter is unfortunate."
Interviews and e-mail exchanges with 14 archdiocesan priests, all of whom have spoken with other priests, revealed widespread confusion over the thrust of Egan's letter and dismay over the open conflict that has gripped the Archdiocese of New York for the past two weeks. No priest was willing to be named because of what each said is Egan's clear dislike of public criticism and concerns about retribution.
Egan's letter to the priests, dated Oct. 20, was in response to a much-discussed and widely circulated anonymous statement that questioned Egan's leadership of the archdiocese but did not specifically mention his handling of sex-abuse cases. Egan, in his letter, pinned the blame for the anonymous criticism on "stories that are being told by priests who have been found guilty of sexually abusing minors."
Several priests said they could not understand how Egan drew this conclusion, even if many priests feel that there has been a lack of due process for those accused of sexual abuse.
"His claiming that the source of the letter critical of him comes from those implicated in the scandals is not based on any evidence," another priest said. "His focus on that area alone overlooks many other concerns of the priests.
"His public dressing down of Monsignor Howard Calkins was behavior very unbecoming a prince of the church and not very classy for the archbishop of New York," he said.
Egan's letter twice mentioned Calkins' declaration in the press that most New York priests agreed with the criticisms in the anonymous letter, which was attributed to "A Committee of Concerned Clergy for the Archdiocese of New York." Calkins, the pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Mount Vernon and vicar of the Sound shore region of Westchester County, apologized to Egan last week and offered his resignation as vicar.
The New York chapter of Voice of the Faithful, a lay group seeking a greater voice for the laity in the church, issued a statement yesterday deploring the recent exchange of critical letters. The group also came to Calkins' defense.
"Many members of the laity and clergy know and respect Msgr. Calkins, and while he may have spoken in haste, he spoke from his heart about the need for greater openness and communication in our community of faith," the statement said. "We respect him for his honesty, and we vow to defend him against attacks."
Last year, Calkins attended a Voice of the Faithful conference about the need for lay participation in planning for a realignment of parishes in the archdiocese.
Joseph Zwilling, Egan's spokesman, said Egan had not yet talked to Calkins about his offer to resign as vicar.
David Clohessy of St. Louis, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, the main advocacy group for victims, said Egan's focus on abusive priests in his letter is a clumsy effort to divert attention from other criticisms. SNAP has long been critical of Egan's handling of sex abuse in Bridgeport, Conn., where he served as bishop before coming to New York.
"He pretends he's been tough on predators and that's why he's being criticized," Clohessy said. "Nothing could be further from the truth."
Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and former editor of Commonweal, a liberal Catholic magazine, said it was hard to know what to think about either the anonymous criticism of Egan or Egan's blaming of unnamed abusive priests.
"The anonymous quality of the initial letter is weird," she said. "(Egan's) letter is like out of the blue. But I don't think that lay people pay much attention to this sort of stuff."
John Shutty, 81, of Yonkers, a parishioner at St. Barnabas Church in the Bronx since 1950, largely agreed. But he said he's given too much to the church to sit back quietly while real problems - like a lack of priests and financial problems facing Catholic education - get overshadowed by squabbling between the archbishop and his priests.
"Nobody is addressing the real problems, and I feel so bad about what's happening," he said. "The cardinal needs to be more vocal and to talk to his priests about how to address the problems we face today. No one is communicating with us."