SNAP Connecticut

An Issue of Limits in Cleric's Testimony

The Stamford Advocate
Published on 1/18/2005

A Roman Catholic cardinal is going to testify in a Connecticut civil lawsuit, a unique event even in the context of the church's recent legal troubles. The case has implications that are broad and in some ways worrisome.

The lawsuit at hand contains elements of all the difficulties and emotions surrounding the issue of sexual abuse of the young by priests, which has riven the Catholic Church since the scandal exploded into view. It has affected many lives adversely, strained individual congregations and cost the denomination many millions of dollars.

The plaintiff is a John Doe, a man in his mid-20s who claims to have been molested when he was a 13-year-old altar boy by the Rev. John Castaldo, then a priest in Trumbull. Some of Castaldo's history is known from a separate criminal case. The priest, who served variously as spiritual adviser at Trinity Catholic High School in Stamford and priest at several churches, was removed after being arrested in 2001 on charges of engaging in a sexually explicit on-line chat with someone he believed was a 14-year-old boy but was in fact an undercover investigator. Castaldo pleaded guilty to a felony charge and was given a short jail term and probation.

As John Doe's civil case against the Bridgeport Diocese and Castaldo heads to trial in Connecticut Superior Court, the plaintiff's lawyers will cross-examine Edward Egan, who is now cardinal of New York but was formerly bishop of Bridgeport and oversaw Castaldo's service.

The cardinal is testifying willingly, saying he has nothing to hide. Some of the church's critics consider this to be progress, saying it will provide an important look at how the top clergy handled the supervision of priests. It may do that. But the idea of putting a church official on the stand raises heavy questions.

There has always been a certain level of privilege extended to members of clergy respecting the sanctity of their relationships with parishioners and colleagues. If a lawyer in cross-examination can probe a church official's thoughts and decisions about information he may have received as confession or confidence, there could be a broad chilling effect on what that church official can hear or advise professionally. If this is routinely allowed in the case of a priest, should it also be allowed in the case of a lawyer or doctor?

There are, sensibly, limits on privilege already. Neither priests nor bishops can break the law, but this case is not a matter of criminality; the state is not pursuing prosecution. We think diluting this privilege should be approached with caution.

We are not offering any conclusions about whether Cardinal Egan might have better protected his flock. The more church officials take responsibility for this situation, and the more they do to ameliorate its consequences, the better. But the cardinal is only a potential witness here, not a perpetrator. The question is whether our sense and system of justice benefit from compromising a traditionally privileged and essentially spiritual relationship, all in the service of building a case for civil damages.

Copyright 2005, Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc.

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Last Updated: October 26, 2005