Doctors: Church Used Us
By ERIC RICH And ELIZABETH HAMILTON
Hartford Courant Staff Writers
March 24, 2002
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 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, doctors
at Hartford's Institute of Living said in interviews.
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 such now-notorious
figures as 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
He said the institute has decided to require that the church attest, in
writing, that it has disclosed any past allegations against priests referred
That the Institute of Living would make such accusations about the Roman
Catholic Church is extraordinary.
As one of the first major psychiatric hospitals to introduce concepts of
spirituality to the treatment of clergy, the institute became unusually close
to the church. Scores of priests from all over the country have been treated
there, priests have worked for the institute, and one of its doctors was even
knighted by Pope Pius XII in 1951.
The institute's criticisms of the church underscore the depth of unease among
doctors, as it becomes increasingly apparent that various diocesan officials
have invoked the institute's evaluations, time and again, as the reason for
allowing abusive priests to continue working.
In his annual pastoral letter yesterday, Egan again cited the institute in
defending his handling of sex-abuse cases while he was 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 frequently ignored doctors' advice when deciding whether to return
abusive 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
The institute's claims - made in interviews conducted before Egan issued his
statement Saturday - raise questions about the church's motives and
expectations when seeking treatment.
Court documents reviewed by The 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 the institute hadn't been told is that Pcolka had faced another
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
"The mental health therapists have ways and techniques of finding out the
truth," he said. "You can't expect that from the bishops. They're not Dick
Tracys. They're not trained to be sleuths."
But a 1990 letter shows that the hospital long ago warned Egan's top aide in
Bridgeport, the Rev. Laurence Bronkiewicz, that the church should not rely on
its evaluations in deciding whether to remove a priest from ministry. The
letter, written by an institute administrator, Dr. Howard Iger, said, "we
certainly are in a weak position when we try to make predictions about future
"As you know from our recent contacts," Iger wrote, "we can be helpful
through the use of our `good offices' in helping to sort out what might be
appropriate administrative action, but we must all be careful that our use of
medical consultation does not overreach its validity."
To be sure, it is difficult to assess the Institute of Living's belated claim
that it has been misled. The hospital would not point to specific cases in
which the church allegedly withheld information, saying it is prevented by
Also, documents show that the institute sometimes did offer assurances that
certain priests could return to parish work - even, in Geoghan's case, after
diagnosing the priest as having "atypical pedophilia in remission." Five
years after the institute wrote the Boston archdiocese in 1990 that Geoghan
was "psychologically fit" to continue working with children, he was again
accused of molesting a boy.
One former psychiatrist who worked at the hospital called Schwartz's
accusations against the church "self-serving" and said that in the 1980s,
when the institute was struggling financially, it viewed the treatment of
clergy as a profitable niche. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the
psychiatrist said there were conversations, formally and informally, about
worries that the church could take its business elsewhere.
"These were good patients for the institute," the psychiatrist said. "The
diocese paid cash."
Under financial strain, the institute became a subsidiary of Hartford
Hospital in 1994.
Schwartz declined to comment on the former psychiatrist's remarks.
He also would not speculate on the church's possible motivation for not
disclosing past allegations. It is clear from the court documents that
knowledge of past allegations made doctors less likely to recommend that a
priest be returned to parish work.
James Gill, a psychiatrist and Jesuit priest who helped start the Institute
of Living's program for clergy, said bishops frequently fail to share
information about allegations, although he doesn't believe it is an attempt
to mislead. He said the church is simply a secretive organization that is
unaccustomed to the full disclosure required in treatment centers.
But, Gill acknowledged, there have been times when he believed a bishop was
sending a priest for treatment with a specific outcome in mind - namely to
get a green light to send him back to work. One of those times happened early
in his own career, he said, when a cardinal personally appealed to him to
pronounce a priest fit for duty.
"I thought this guy was going to need months of therapy," Gill said. "But the
cardinal showed up and told me he needed the guy back in his parish and he
gave me a date he had to be back at work."
That jibes with an institute doctor's suggestion during a 1987 newspaper
interview that the church, concerned about a clergy shortage, was anxious to
get priests back into circulation after treatment.
"The bishops and vicars of priests, and leaders of religious communities,
want everyone back," Dr. Thomas J. Conklin said.
Though neither the institute nor the various dioceses are willing to discuss
individual cases, a review of medical records and diocesan memoranda
contained in court files in Bridgeport, Norwich and Boston offers a rare
perspective on the decades-old relationship, now frayed, between the church
and the hospital.
Pedophile In Remission
The Archdiocese of Boston had received complaints that Father John Geoghan
molested at least 15 children before sending him for treatment in 1989 - but
apparently told clinicians about only six.
Geoghan was first evaluated at St. Luke Institute in Maryland, which
summarized the reason for his referral as "reports that he had been sexually
involved with three boys during the 1983-84 time period," as well as
Geoghan's admission that he had fondled "three other boys" in the late 1970s.
Eight months later, the Institute of Living cited some of the same incidents
in its own evaluation of the priest.
But that was hardly the whole story.
First, Geoghan hadn't admitted to fondling three boys in the late 1970s.
Internal archdiocese memoranda show that he had admitted to molesting seven
boys, ages 4 to 12, from the same family - sexual abuse that ranged from
fondling to oral sex.
And, according to diocese records subpoenaed in more than 100 sex-abuse cases
against Geoghan, church officials received their first complaints about
Geoghan as far back as 1968. Over the next 21 years, at least six more
molestation allegations, some involving more than one victim, would be
registered with the diocese.
Despite the incomplete information, it was enough for clinicians at St.
Luke's who evaluated Geoghan in April 1989 to determine he was at "high risk"
for offending again and shouldn't be allowed near children, and to recommend
inpatient treatment. In short, they diagnosed him a pedophile.
Geoghan received that inpatient treatment at the Institute of Living from
August to November of 1989. It is not clear how much information the
institute was given about Geoghan's past behavior - St. Luke Institute, years
later, would conclude that Geoghan lied during that 1989 stay at the
Whatever the reasons, the Institute of Living made what would turn out to be
a disastrous recommendation. It diagnosed him an atypical pedophile "in
remission," but said doctors decided after "meeting with the patient's
superior" that Geoghan could return to his parish in Weston, Mass.
When that recommendation was received by the archdiocese, a top church
official wrote back to the doctor saying he was "a bit disappointed and
disturbed" by the report, and suggested that the diagnosis did not appear to
be a firm basis for the decision to reassign Geoghan.
"It seems to suggest that the decision concerning his reassignment was based
on one meeting with me, rather than three months of observation," wrote
Bishop Robert J. Banks.
The institute doctor, Robert F. Swords, quickly responded with a reassuring
letter on Dec. 13, 1989, saying: "It is both reasonable and therapeutic for
him to be reassigned back to his parish."
Swords wrote a follow-up letter to Banks in Boston on Dec. 12, 1990, saying
Geoghan "continues to do well and remains psychologically fit for pastoral
work in general including children."
The civil and criminal allegations against Geoghan in Massachusetts indicate
he had at least 30 victims from 1984 to 1993, when he was removed from parish
work and sent to a home for retired priests.
Even then, Geoghan was still allegedly pursuing children.
Geoghan was defrocked by the Boston diocese in 1998 and convicted of one
count of indecent assault earlier this year.
The church has paid out about $10 million in 50 cases against the priest, but
84 lawsuits are still pending.
Treatment For `Burnout'
In the 1970s, before he became a priest, Richard Buongirno allegedly molested
a teenager he met at St. Thomas More School in Colchester. When the victim
came forward with a complaint in 1994, Buongirno, by then a member of the
clergy, was promptly shipped off for treatment at the Institute of Living.
What the Norwich diocese did not mention to doctors at the institute was
that, three years earlier, Buongirno was accused of having a 9-year-old altar
boy stay in his bed at the rectory at St. Matthias in East Lyme.
Doctors diagnosed Buongirno as depressive. They treated him for
self-described "burnout." They believed his claim that he had been celibate
since joining the priesthood.
And they saw no reason to keep him from returning to active ministry.
A memorandum to Bishop Daniel P. Reilly, written by the bishop's aide, makes
clear the diocese's desire for a written assurance that Buongirno could
return to work. The memo contains the following account of the aide's
conversation with the Rev. John Kiely, the institute's director of pastoral
services: "Jack said the doctor was willing to write that Richard can return
to ministry as we spoke about. Officially for the record and for your
Upon release that September, Buongirno was assigned a parochial vicar at St.
John Church in Cromwell.
In 1997, he crossed paths again with the altar boy who allegedly had stayed
in his bed, now a junior at a Catholic high school. Buongirno renewed a
relationship with the teenager, showering him with gifts - stock in Microsoft
Corp., a computer - and let him drive his 1956 Chevy Bel Air, according to
According to a lawsuit filed by the teenager, the abuse began again later
that year. The priest said their relationship was blessed by God, the boy
later said. He was 16; Buongirno was 53.
It ended only when the church learned that Buongirno had taken the boy on a
cross-country road trip to Mount Rushmore. Reilly ordered them home - and
asked Buongirno to leave the priesthood.
"My faith in God has been shattered," the boy said in an affidavit. "My
childhood was destroyed."
Standing before a Superior Court judge earlier this month, a lawyer for the
diocese argued that it could not be held accountable for Buongirno's actions
with the teenager because doctors at the institute had recommended that he be
allowed back into ministry.
Protecting The Public
When Egan was bishop of Bridgeport, his record on informing the institute
about the full scope of sexual misconduct allegations against his priests is
What is clear, however, is his almost exclusive reliance on the institute and
other professionals to determine what administrative action he should take
against a priest.
Priests Charles Carr and Raymond Pcolka were sent to the Institute of Living
by Egan after abuse allegations and, in both cases, Egan and other church
officials cited the institute's findings to explain why they allowed the
priests to continue working.
In the Carr case, for example, the priest denied the accusations during his
initial meeting with doctors in January 1990, and was returned to parish
work. When new allegations came forth a few months later, Carr was returned
to the institute for a more extensive evaluation.
An institute doctor advised the diocese to take "some administrative action
to protect both Father Carr and the public" from future "lapses" by Carr.
Egan allowed Carr to continue as a priest, but on the condition that he
remain in treatment and have no contact with children.
A year later, that restriction was lifted - this time on the advice of a
different psychiatrist. Sweeney, the diocese's attorney, said Egan followed
the recommendation of a Jesuit priest and psychiatrist from New York who was
treating Carr on an outpatient basis.
Egan suspended Carr in 1995 when the diocese was sued over sex-abuse
allegations, but allowed him to return to work - albeit in a restricted
capacity - in 1999 after more treatment. Carr served as a nursing home pastor
until last month, when new allegations were made against him.
The same pattern was followed in the Pcolka case, but in a more abbreviated
form. Pcolka, who was eventually accused of molesting more than a dozen
children in civil lawsuits, was first sent to the institute in 1989 for an
evaluation. Egan said in his 1999 deposition that he returned the priest to
his parish at the advice of the professionals at the Institute of Living, who
indicated "that there was no reason for us to hesitate to allow this person
to continue in his duty."
There is no way to determine whether this is an accurate representation of
the institute's findings, however, because a judge in the Pcolka lawsuits
ruled that the diocese could not turn over the priest's psychiatric records
to the plaintiffs. What is clear is that the 1983 letter that would have
alerted doctors to an earlier complaint against Pcolka was missing from his
Sweeney said a doctor at the Institute of Living told the diocese he'd "found
no basis for challenging [Pcolka's] denial of the allegations."
"That's the way it was expressed to the diocese," Sweeney said.
Pcolka continued working at his Greenwich church until 1992, when the diocese
received another complaint. Egan ordered the priest back to the Hartford
treatment center, but Pcolka stayed only 10 days before leaving against the
advice of doctors and against Egan's orders.
Copyright 2002, Hartford Courant