Accusation Leads to Suspension of High-Level Priest in New York

New York Times/May 25, 2002
By Daniel J. Wakin

The sexual abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church reached the highest levels of the Archdiocese of New York yesterday, when the archdiocese announced it had ordered the suspension of the monsignor in charge of fund-raising after he was accused of having an "improper relationship" with a minor 20 years ago.

The monsignor, Charles M. Kavanagh, was ordered not to act as a priest and was removed from his positions as the archdiocese's vicar for development and pastor of St. Raymond's Church, the archdiocese said. St. Raymond's, in the Parkchester section of the Bronx, is among the city's biggest and most prominent parishes.

As vicar for development, Monsignor Kavanagh is one of the archdiocese's most powerful clerics. He was involved in the planning for the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner, a prestigious gala that has drawn politicians up to and including campaigning presidential candidates, several archdiocese officials said. He also oversees the annual Cardinal's Appeal fund-raising drive, which is currently under way, and has worked closely with Cardinal Edward M. Egan. At the same time, he has presided over St. Raymond's, which has a school noted nationwide for its basketball program.

The charge that led to the suspension was made by a man who said he had a relationship with Monsignor Kavanagh as a student at Cathedral Preparatory Seminary, once the archdiocese's main high school for young men headed for the priesthood, said the archdiocese's spokesman, Joseph Zwilling. Monsignor Kavanagh, who turns 65 on Monday, was rector of the seminary from 1977 to 1985. He was assigned to St. Raymond's in 1988 and was named vicar for development in 1994.

The man reported the allegation to the archdiocese late last week after first going to the Manhattan district attorney's office, Mr. Zwilling said. The report was the first time the archdiocese had learned of the allegation, he said. The archdiocese took action against the monsignor after receiving more information from the complainant, he said.

Mr. Zwilling declined to provide further details of the allegation. He would not disclose the monsignor's whereabouts or say whether the monsignor denied the charge. The district attorney's office would not discuss the case.

In a policy announced on May 15, the archdiocese said that once it had reason to suspect abuse had occurred, it would consult with the appropriate district attorney and take action against the priest "as warranted, including removing the priest from his assignment."

The archdiocese said last month that at least six other of its priests had been suspended, without identifying them, after the archdiocese began handing over files of past allegations to prosecutors. On Thursday, a visiting priest from India working at a Harlem church was suspended after his arrest in a 1999 sexual abuse case in Brooklyn.

None of the other accused priests have held as much influence as Monsignor Kavanagh. In addition to the Alfred E. Smith dinner, he handled such things as the logistics for prominent figures attending Cardinal John J. O'Connor's funeral in 2000.

Mr. Zwilling declined to comment on what effect the suspension might have on the Cardinal's Appeal, whose goal is $15 million, at a time when Cardinal Egan is struggling to bring archdiocese finances under control. As of mid-May, the appeal had raised $8.2 million. When the cardinal came into the job, the deficit in the archdiocese's budget was $20 million; Monsignor Kavanagh said last month in an interview with The New York Times that it had been halved.

"I would imagine this is a tremendous blow" to the archdiocese's fund-raising efforts, said the Rev. Walter Modrys, pastor at St. Ignatius Loyola on the Upper East Side and a skilled fund-raiser himself. "Gee whiz, your top fund-raiser is in trouble."

Fellow pastors expressed dismay about the latest development in the priest sexual abuse scandal, which has been roiling the Catholic Church nationwide for the past four months.

"It gets worse and worse - I don't understand it - every day," said the Rev. John Grange, pastor of St. Jerome's Church in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx.

"He had a position of great influence and importance and trust," Father Grange said, referring to Monsignor Kavanagh. "With the money situation being as it is, I don't know of anybody who had more of a burden on his shoulders."

Mr. Zwilling said no decision had been made on what steps the archdiocese might take regarding the monsignor. He said the monsignor would continue to receive his priest's stipend for the time being.

The Rev. John Duffell, of the Church of the Ascension on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, wondered about the suspension's fairness. "You almost hope the punishment could be leveled after the facts were determined," he said. "According to the cardinal, this is the policy that has to be in effect because this is what the people want. I wonder if that's really true. Isn't somebody innocent until proven guilty?"

Monsignor Kavanagh, who was born in Manhattan, was an outstanding basketball player at Cathedral College, said Father Grange, who attended the college with him. He studied for the priesthood in Rome and was ordained in 1963.

The monsignor was one of only a handful of top officials kept on by Cardinal Egan when he succeeded Cardinal O'Connor as archbishop in 2000, and he frequently accompanied the cardinal to fund-raising events.

In the interview last month with The Times, Monsignor Kavanagh described his pitch to potential donors: "This is our work. We are healing and ministering to their city. But it costs money. Your contribution will be used to do good."

Monsignor Kavanagh expressed sympathy for the young victims of sexual abuse by priests, but also concern that innocent priests would be falsely accused, or at the least tarred by association with the guilty.

He is a prominent figure in his own right in the Bronx. He is a founding member of the Bronx Clergy Task Force, which was formed after the Amadou Diallo police shooting case to improve relations between residents and the police. The monsignor also led the drive for a $12 million, 60,000-square-foot community center in Parkchester, helping secure a tax-free city bond of $7 million to $8 million.

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