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He Handles the Scandals

Jun 16, 2002 | New York Daily News

For the last decade, he has been the keeper of some of the church's ugliest secrets.

Msgr. Edward O'Donnell — the cardinal's point man on priests' sexual misconduct and the Archdiocese of New York's former director for priest personnel — has been dispatched to local parishes to defend his brethren, quietly cut settlement deals and swear victims and their families to secrecy.

As the archdiocese continues to wrestle with its past as well as unfolding criminal investigations of pedophile priests, O'Donnell's name regularly surfaces as a fierce protector of the institution he has served for nearly 50 years.

O'Donnell, now Edward Cardinal Egan's vicar of priests, also has come under sharp attack for comments that are seen as insensitive to abuse victims and for trying to cover up for troubled priests rather than exposing them. He has been called a liar and a stonewaller by parishioners who have pleaded with him to act to remove pedophile priests.

"I'm just somebody trying to do a job," O'Donnell told the Daily News.

"It's a very sensitive position," said Msgr. Tom Leonard, the pastor at Holy Trinity Church on W. 82nd St., who was the head of priest personnel from 1973 to 1977. "Being sent out to the parishes on these cases can be a very unpleasant task."

Those who have known and worked with O'Donnell, 73, a former pastor of Our Lady of Solace in the Bronx, describe him as a church loyalist who is calm in manner, efficient on the job.

Moving Up

In 1990, John Cardinal O'Connor named him vice chancellor for priest personnel, where he served for the next decade.

In 1999, O'Connor appointed him chancellor of the Archdiocese of New York, one of the highest positions in the church hierarchy.

Msgr. Patrick Barry, a classmate of O'Donnell's at St. Joseph's Seminary in 1954 and pastor at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Mount Vernon, said: "I can't say enough good things about him. He is quite an experienced priest and gets top rating as a compassionate person."

His critics feel otherwise.

"To cover up for pedophile priests and transfer them to place to place is an outrage," said the Rev. Ron Lemmert, who blew the whistle on the Rev. Gennaro Gentile, the former pastor at Holy Name of Mary Church in Croton-on-Hudson who is suspected of sexual misconduct with dozens of altar boys.

In September 1997, Vincent and Patricia Nauheimer sued Gentile and the archdiocese, charging their two teenage sons had been molested by the priest.

Backed the Accused

When the lawsuit became public, the archdiocese, with O'Donnell as its public face, embarked on a campaign to defend Gentile and attack the teens' family.

"I am here to express my and the archdiocese's support for him," O'Donnell told five Masses at Holy Name of Mary Church on Sept. 28, 1997. "The civil lawsuit is about money damages. There is no substance to the civil suit."

A News investigation of Gentile in March described a chronic pattern of sexual misconduct spanning 30 years, citing court documents and interviews with alleged victims and priests who worked with him during that time.

Gentile was one of six priests suspended by the archdiocese in April and is among those being investigated by a Westchester County grand jury.

"It wasn't so much defending him, it was defending the situation," O'Donnell said in a recent interview at an elegant Bronxville restaurant where he and 20 seminary classmates celebrated their 48th reunion.

"I forget how many millions they were asking from the diocese. I thought that that was not appropriate. I thought the [Nauheimer] suit was premature," he said.

When told of O'Donnell's remarks, Anne Kennedy, a parishioner at Holy Name for more than 30 years and mother of three altar boys, was incensed.

"His words add insult to injury," said Kennedy. "He used our altar to lie to us, to say that the charges against Father Gentile were untrue when he knew otherwise. The Nauheimers should be commended for doing what was right."

The Nauheimer family, who quietly settled with Gentile in November, agreed to a gag order and could not comment.

Link to Tainted Pastor

O'Donnell's name made the news again in recent weeks involving the Rev. Paul Shanley of Boston, a central figure in the nationwide abuse scandal.

Shanley, who has been charged with raping a boy in Massachusetts and molesting several other boys, was given the green light by O'Donnell in 1995 to work at Leo House, a Catholic youth hostel in Manhattan.

In court documents just released in Boston, after O'Donnell met with Shanley in June 1995, he assured Boston church officials it would be safe to send Shanley to Leo House.

"I would find it close to inconceivable that there would be any unwholesome activities occurring there," he wrote.

While a Boston church official wrote in a memo that O'Donnell had not been informed of all the specifics about Shanley, the New York cleric was told "there have been allegations of sexual misconduct about Father Shanley."

In 1998, Luis Guzman, 23, filed a $110 million sexual abuse suit against the Rev. Henry Mills, whom he went to for counseling in 1992. Guzman also charged O'Donnell and other church officials with a pattern of covering up the abuse after Guzman met with O'Donnell and, at his request, underwent psychological counseling aimed at settling the case.

In a followup phone interview to discuss his role in these and other cases, O'Donnell told The News, "I'd rather not discuss it."

Asked whether he found his job difficult, given the subject matter, O'Donnell said, "It's been trying for me just to see the suffering that priests are going through. There are a lot of generalized judgments that are made, umbrella judgments not well founded in many cases and innocent cases."


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