May 18, 2002

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. (AP) - As bishop of Bridgeport, Cardinal Edward M. Egan gave a priest accused of abuse thousands of dollars to settle bank debts and pay for a defense lawyer, court documents show.

The documents obtained by The Hartford Courant show the diocese resisted compensation for Gavin O'Connor's alleged victim, but paid the priest as much as $17,000 in 1989.

At the time, O'Connor had been accused of molesting boys for years.

The payment was condemned by the plaintiff's attorney in court as a payoff intended to buy O'Connor's silence in the case pending against him and the diocese, the paper reported. The diocese denied that claim.

During a March 1998 pretrial hearing, a Hartford Superior Court judge decided to allow testimony about the payment during trial, but the diocese settled the case for an undisclosed sum the next day.

The court file was sealed and destroyed, but one surviving transcript of the hearing shows the diocese argued that church law required Egan to pay O'Connor's personal debts because he was ``removing the man's ability to practice his professional calling.''

``All bishops are required by canon law to provide for the support of their priests,'' Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York where Egan now is archbishop, said Friday in a statement. ``Accordingly, during the period following O'Connor's suspension by Bishop Egan and prior to his laicization (removal from priesthood), the diocese did provide for his living expenses. Also, as part of his transition to the lay state, the diocese agreed to assist in paying some personal debts that O'Connor had accumulated during his priesthood.''

In 1989, when the payment was made, O'Connor was earning $34,000 to $44,000 a year as a federal prison chaplain, The Courant reported.

The plaintiff's attorney, Hubert Santos, told the judge he had evidence that Egan and his aide, Monsignor Lawrence Bronkiewicz, paid O'Connor $12,000 to $17,000. Santos cited correspondence from O'Connor to another priest - documents that remain under seal - that he said showed the money was part of a ``side deal'' to keep O'Connor quiet.

Court documents show Egan testified he found the allegations against O'Connor so substantial that O'Connor was the only accused priest that Egan defrocked during his tenure in Bridgeport. At the same time, the diocese fought O'Connor's accusers in court, battling one complainant for six years before settling.

O'Connor was accused in two lawsuits of molesting three boys from the same family from 1977 to 1985, when O'Connor became a prison chaplain in Illinois. One of the boys attempted suicide in 1985, prompting the disclosure of the abuse to the diocese in 1986 by his family, who attended St. Joseph's church in Shelton.

In 1988, the year the family brought its first lawsuit against the Bridgeport diocese on behalf of the younger boys, O'Connor was given his own parish to run in Cobden, Ill.

Two of the brothers sued in 1988, a lawsuit that Zwilling said was settled in 1989 shortly after Egan became bishop of Bridgeport. The third brother sued in 1992, and the diocese fought that case until the settlement in 1998.

O'Connor retired as a federal prison chaplain in 1998, according to the Bureau of Prisons. Today, he co-owns a real estate office in San Diego.

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