Secret court documents reveal that New York Cardinal Edward M. Egan, while serving as bishop of the Bridgeport Roman Catholic Diocese, allowed several priests facing multiple accusations of sexual abuse to continue working for years - including one who admitted biting a teenager during oral sex.

Egan failed to investigate aggressively some abuse allegations, did not refer complaints to criminal authorities and, during closed testimony in 1999, suggested that a dozen people who made complaints of rape, molestation and beatings against the same priest may have all been lying, the documents show.

In comments that seem starkly out of synch with the current climate of zero tolerance for sex-abuse accusations against priests, Egan said he wasn't interested in allegations - only "realities." He added that "very few have even come close to having anyone prove anything" against a priest.

"Allegations are allegations," he said.

In addition, former Bridgeport Bishop Walter Curtis, Egan's predecessor, testified in 1995 that the diocese deliberately shuffled pedophile priests among parishes to give them a "fresh start," and he admitted destroying records of complaints against some priests, the documents show. Curtis, who is now deceased, also said he didn't believe pedophilia was a permanent condition.

The revelations about Egan's role in Connecticut's largest clergy sex-abuse scandal are taken from thousands of documents in lawsuits that Egan and the Bridgeport diocese fought, successfully, to keep sealed from public view. While the files remain sealed following a settlement of the suits last year, The Courant recently obtained copies of much of them, including transcripts of pretrial testimony of Egan and Curtis, internal diocesan memoranda and personnel files.

The documents reveal that, in addition to the eight priests who were originally sued, at least nine others faced molestation accusations but were never publicly identified. The documents - which do not include details of the claims or their outcomes - name seven of the priests, one of whom continues to serve as pastor at a Fairfield County parish.

While glimpses of the allegations against a few of the priests emerged during eight years of legal battle, details of what the bishops and other church officials had to say about the cases, and how they handled them, have never been reported until now.

The Bridgeport diocese settled complaints against six priests for $12 million to $15 million last March, shortly after Egan was promoted to cardinal in New York. Egan, who was bishop in Bridgeport from 1988 to 2000, was a defendant in some of the lawsuits and fought them aggressively from 1993 until the settlement, which ended all of the litigation.

He inherited a budding scandal in the Bridgeport diocese that took root during the 27-year reign of Curtis, who, in pretrial interviews with plaintiffs' lawyers, exhibited a blunt lack of interest in dealing with sexually abusive priests. Asked if he ever transferred a priest "because of pedophilic conduct," Curtis replied, "yes."

"When he was assigned to a different parish, would anyone be advised of the problem which he had previously had?" the attorney asked.

"No," Curtis said.

Under Curtis, the documents show, church officials and other priests often ignored obvious signs of sexual involvement with children - such as Rev. Gavin O'Connor's practice of having boys spend the weekend with him in his bed in the rectory. Typically, when a complaint was made, it was only considered substantiated if the priest confessed.

Curtis also testified that records of complaints against priests would usually be put into the diocese's "secret archive," a canonically required cache of historical documents accessed only with keys kept by the bishop and the vicar. He said he would occasionally go into the archive and remove what he called "antiquated" abuse complaints, and destroy them.

Curtis seemed less interested in pedophilia - which he viewed as "an occasional thing" and not a serious psychological problem - than in weeding out potential gays among clergy applicants:

"We had a policy in this sense, that before a candidate was accepted for study for the priesthood, [they] would have psychological testing, and if there appeared signs of homosexuality, he wouldn't be accepted," Curtis said.

By the time Egan took over in December 1988, complaints were trickling in against several priests, made by adults who said they had been victimized in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The documents show that he defrocked at least one priest for sexual offenses, and put in place the first written policy on sexual abuse complaints.

But he was slow to suspend or remove priestly powers of some others, even those with multiple complaints against them.

Despite a May 1990 memo by a diocese official worrying about "a developing pattern of accusations" that Rev. Charles Carr of Norwalk had fondled young boys, Egan kept Carr working as a priest until 1995, when he suspended him only after a lawsuit was filed. Egan's aide, Vicar Laurence R. Bronkiewicz, wrote a sympathetic note to Carr.