The nation's most prominent Catholic leader Saturday denied he had covered up sexual abuse by priests while he was a bishop in Connecticut.
Cardinal Edward Egan, head of the New York Archdiocese _ the nation's largest, encompassing 2.5-million Catholics _ issued his defense in a two-page letter handed to parishioners attending Mass at every church in his realm.
It marked his first response to an article in last Sunday's Hartford Courant that said Egan, during his 1988-2000 tenure as bishop of Bridgeport, Conn., allowed several priests accused of sexual molestation to continue practicing and brought allegations to the police.
In the letter, Egan strongly condemned child abuse and for the first time encouraged anyone with such allegations to take them "to the proper civil authorities directly and immediately."
Egan wrote "sexual abuse of children is an abomination. It is both immoral and illegal, and I will not tolerate it . . . Should any priest sexually abuse a child, he will be removed from pastoral ministry."
In another passage, he said, "Should the Archdiocese of New York be approached with an allegation, we will make the appropriate report to the proper authorities."
He added one caveat: ". . . if there is reasonable cause to suspect abuse and the victim does not oppose the reporting."
Before Saturday, Egan's silence provoked anguish and outcry.