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  Home :: 2007 February :: The Cardinal’s Sins
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The Cardinal’s Sins

EdwardEgan did the dirty job he was hired to do with less pain than anyonethought possible. So why can’t his priests wait to get rid of him?

As the Cardinal walked into the front parlor of his St. Patrick’sresidence, girding for a tense meeting with about 40 leading New Yorkpriests, he was painfully aware of the circle that seemed ready toclose around him. For nearly seven years, Edward Egan had reigned ascardinal-archbishop of New York—“the archbishop of the capital of theworld,” as Pope John Paul II once called the job. Yet throughout histime here Egan had never really felt at home, had never become a “real”New Yorker in the identity morph that so many transplanted prelates andpoliticians manage just by donning a baseball cap. Instead, by choiceand by nature, Egan had remained an outsider, a Chicagoan by birth anda Roman cleric by training, who had both an exalted view of a bishop’sauthority and an anxious sense of how perilous the modern world can befor anything that smacks of monarchy.
 

As Egan, 74, prepared to retire from the pulpit that he rarely usedto great effect, Egan’s long-standing fears seemed to be coming true,his history repeating itself with uncanny timing. He’d called themeeting of the Presbyteral Council in response to an anonymous letter,containing a series of blistering attacks on the cardinal, thatsurfaced on a clerical-gossip blog and subsequently made it into thepapers.

Thedisloyalty he read in the priests’ faces this Monday in Octoberreminded Egan of the ugly finale of his own mentor, Chicago’s cardinalJohn Cody. Cody, who died in 1982 under a cloud of scandal andrecrimination, was one of those old-school churchmen whose long tenurewas marked by a brittle and autocratic style. But then-father EdwardEgan, who in the sixties served as personal secretary to Cody, stood bythe cardinal to the end. Egan saw Cody as a role model and regularlychampioned his legacy, a past that was never as present as it was nowfor Egan as he approached the twilight of his own career.

Theletter, signed by an anonymous “Committee of Concerned Clergy,” saidthat the relationship between the priests and a New York archbishop—themortar that binds the hierarchy—had never “been so fractured andseemingly hopeless as it is now.”

Theauthors, who claimed they had to remain nameless because of “theseverely vindictive nature of Cardinal Egan,” collated every criticismever circulated about him—he was “arrogant and cavalier,” andespecially “cruel and ruthless” toward priests, whom he treated with“dishonesty, deception, disinterest and disregard.” Egan had “anunnatural fear of the media” and had abdicated his role as a publicfigure and leader of the Catholic Church. And it called on the prieststo act so that the Vatican would find a better man for the job.

Eganopened the session by reading, in full, an abject apology written tohim by Monsignor Howard Calkins, a popular Westchester priest who, theprevious day, had given an interview to the Daily News, inwhich he said that the letter reflected real anger at Egan. That wastantamount to betrayal in Egan’s mind, and Calkins, realizing he’d madea mistake, quickly wrote a personal letter to Egan offering to resignas head of the local vicariate, or region, and apologizing again forhis “careless and ill-considered comments.” After reading Calkins’sletter, Egan called over his spokesman, Joseph Zwilling, and orderedhim to release it to the media.

Accordingto several accounts from those who were present, Egan went on to claimthat his enemies were priests accused of sexual abuse who thought thatEgan hadn’t adequately defended them. “When I hear stories about whatthose priests do, I have to do No. 2,” he spat in disgust. Then Eganwidened his target to the entire priest corps: Of the 2,000 priests andbishops in the archdiocese, he lamented, not one stood up to defendhim. “I was loyal to Cardinal Cody to the end,” he insisted in thestentorian affect he uses to complement his imposing height and girth.“Let me tell you, that is manliness! That is priestliness! That isEdward M. Egan!”

Theroom went silent. Egan announced that he needed to go upstairs forphysical therapy on his knee, which still hurt after joint-replacementsurgery in September, and then retired to his private quarters whilethe priests waited. For their part, they just wanted to get through themeeting and get back to their parishes unscathed, and the way Egan hadhandled Calkins convinced them that any hint of insurrection would betantamount to clerical suicide. As the meeting stretched on for twohours, the priests agreed to a statement of support for Egan, sayingthey were “appalled” by the anonymous letter and “upset and dismayedthat our Archbishop has been personally vilified in this manner.”
 

Yet Egan was still not ready to let the incident go. Four dayslater, on Friday, October 20, the cardinal followed up with a letter toall the priests of the archdiocese declaring that those behind theanonymous letter were obviously sexual abusers. “We cannot be left opento all manner of lies, leading to all manner of scandal and damage tothe Archdiocese and the Archbishop from people who refuse to takeresponsibility for their actions,” Egan wrote.

Thenhe followed up a week later with a lengthy column in the archdiocesanpaper, calling the anonymous letter “a secret, a secret of cowards.”(Egan suggested that the author was a layperson, because in his viewthe letter-writer used the word disinterested incorrectly, amistake he hoped no priest would commit.) And again, Egan went afterCalkins—naming him seven more times and dismissing his apology as “apartial correction” and “a curious protest of loyalty.” And hecomplained that the newspapers used a picture of Calkins “in priestlyvestments, kneeling and embracing an African-American girl of six orseven years of age,” while he, Egan, was shown “with a twistedexpression on my face.”

Whatevercomity the earlier meeting had achieved quickly ended. On hisinfluential blog, Father Richard John Neuhaus, a prominent conservativeand editor of the religio-political journal First Things, wrotethat Egan’s follow-up letter was “ill-advised and that the approach hehas outlined is more likely to exacerbate than to resolve currentdiscontents.” Even while criticizing the writers’ anonymity, Neuhausadded that their claim of widespread dissatisfaction with Egancontained “a strong measure of truth.”

Evenafter nearly seven years as archbishop, Egan remains a distant figurein Catholic life. In mid-January, he concluded the biggest publicproject of his tenure when he announced the closing of 21 parishes—acenterpiece of his nearly completed goal of restoring the batteredfinances of the archdiocese, a plan that also included the closing ofnine schools. While Egan managed to spare a third of the institutionsinitially targeted for closure, mercy will not be what he’s rememberedfor.

Historically,the city’s top priest has been a tribal chieftain as much as aspiritual leader—a man who represents the pride of a blue-collarimmigrant community that overcame prejudice and hardship to become themost prominent and powerful religious force in the city. Every bishophas a threefold mandate, “to teach, to sanctify, and to govern,” andNew York churchmen have made full use of those powers, from “DaggerJohn” Hughes, the fearsome prelate who laid the cornerstone of St.Patrick’s Cathedral in 1858, to Francis Spellman, whose influenceearned his residence the nickname of “the Powerhouse,” to Egan’simmediate predecessor, the mediagenic and immensely popular JohnO’Connor, who clashed with Catholic pols like Mario Cuomo, co-authoreda book, His Eminence and Hizzoner, with Ed Koch, and broughtthe pope to Central Park. Even Cardinal Terence Cooke, who reignedbetween Spellman and O’Connor, was a man to be reckoned with despite aquiet demeanor.

Notso Egan. From the start, he approached the job more as a privateadministrator than as a civic leader. He eschewed partisan politics andshunned the media. For many years, O’Connor would talk to reportersafter Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s, guaranteeing Monday-morningheadlines and helping to make him a player in the life of the city.Egan, a gifted homilist, preferred to preach to the folks in the pews,and generally restricted his media appearances to twice-annual TVinterviews, at Christmas and Easter. Even as pastor to a flock of 3million Catholics who worship in more than 400 parishes from StatenIsland to Sullivan County, he tended to be the classic “office priest,”operating from behind a desk and making periodic Sunday visits to localparishes.

Infact, from the time he arrived for his first New York stint in 1985, asan auxiliary to O’Connor, Egan has seemed temperamentally ill-suited tothe city, a mismatch that in retrospect makes the ragged end of hiscareer almost foreordained. O’Connor had been only recently transferredfrom Scranton, Pennsylvania, to take over the New York Archdiocese whenPope John Paul II asked him to take on Egan as a bishop. O’Connor hadspent 27 years in the U.S. Navy as a chaplain, rising to the rank ofrear admiral, and he would never refuse his higher-ups. But that’s notto say he liked the decision, or Egan himself.

Thetwo men could not have been more different: O’Connor, an outgoing,outspoken pastor who was born in a Philadelphia rowhouse toworking-class parents, the fourth of five children; and Egan, theopera-loving, piano-playing aesthete from the Roman Curia by way of anupper-middle-class Chicago upbringing. O’Connor would don a Yankees capand sport a goofy grin; Egan would savor a performance of Otelloat the Met and invite Renée Fleming to sing at his installation. “Itwas a very difficult relationship,” says a former Church official whoknew both men.
 

Egan came to the job with a long résumé of academic honors butlittle experience in parish life. Even as a teenager in a minorseminary in Chicago, he had struck his classmates as unusually formal,with an almost patrician bearing. “It seemed like from the first day ofhigh school he was wearing French cuffs,” even if only figuratively,says Robert McClory, a former Chicago priest who spent eight years inthe seminary with Ed Egan from the time they were 13 or 14 years old,as was the custom in those days.

Egandidn’t pal around or play sports—a bout of childhood polio may havetaken its toll on his physical confidence, acquaintances say—but he hadplenty of friends. Unlike the rest, he rarely if ever earned a demeriton the card every seminarian had to carry with him, and over the fiveyears of high school he garnered the highest average, winning the titleof class prefect. He was also elected class president. As McClory says,“He was the perfect seminarian.”

Fewwere surprised when Egan was tapped to finish his studies in Rome atthe Pontifical North American College, the elite seminary for would-bepriests on the fast track. Egan eventually, and perhaps inevitably,earned the nickname of “Alpine Ed”—a climber who seemed destined toascend the hierarchy. And so he did. In 1964, he received a doctoratein canon law from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, oftencalled “the pope’s Harvard.” He graduated summa cum laude—effectivelyhe was a Church attorney—and returned to Chicago to serve as secretaryto the city’s newly installed archbishop, the now-notorious CardinalCody.

In1971, Egan went back to Rome to serve as a judge on the Roman Rota, theChurch’s top court of appeals, and to teach canon law. His big breakcame in the early eighties as the Vatican was revising the Church’sentire Code of Canon Law, the dense compilation of strictures andprocedures covering every possible sin or circumstance in Catholiclife. Egan was one of six canonists assigned to finish the task, and hesat for many hours with Pope John Paul parsing the complex texts. “Thatreally launched him,” says a priest who knows Egan well. The code wasfinally promulgated in 1983, and as often happened, John Paul wanted toreward Egan by making him an auxiliary, or assistant bishop, to acardinal in a large diocese. (An archbishop will often have severalauxiliaries to help carry the workload.)

Auxiliarybishops are normally among a cardinal’s most trusted advisers, yetO’Connor’s first assistant bishop was this outsider, and he leteveryone know it. At a fête for the new bishop, in front of Egan’sfamily, O’Connor made edgy jokes about Egan and his grand piano andtoasted him as “Chicago’s revenge.” Eventually O’Connor shunted himaside by making him vicar for education, in charge of the archdiocesanschool system. By all accounts Egan did the job well enough, and in1988, he was promoted to a diocese of his own, in Bridgeport.

Formore than a decade, Egan ran the show, often in the imperious manner heseemed to perfect in Rome. If Egan didn’t have a warm and fuzzy publicpersona, he at least had a knack for administration. His fund-raisingprowess enriched Catholic Charities, which became the largest privatesocial-services agency in Fairfield County, and his reorganization ofthe schools bolstered enrollment. He cultivated contacts in“Fairchester,” the deep-pocketed Catholic crowd of Fairfield andWestchester counties, which included the likes of then General ElectricCEO Jack Welch, then PepsiCo CEO Roger Enrico, and Bob Wright, chairmanof NBC.
 

In 1999, as O’Connor began to succumb to brain cancer, Egan’s namesurfaced as a possible replacement. O’Connor was a favorite of JohnPaul’s, and as a sign of his affection, the pope had kept O’Connor onwell past his 75th birthday. But now O’Connor was nearing 80, and hiscancer was so advanced that the Vatican had to start thinking aboutmaking a move.

Althoughthe process for naming bishops was once quasi democratic, or at leastconsultative, with local clergy having a say, in the past century theprocess had become increasingly secretive and byzantine. Even theterna, the list of three candidates traditionally compiled by Churchofficials for the pope to choose from, is not sacrosanct, and John Pauloften picked someone else entirely. The names on the New York terna inearly 2000 were reportedly Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, longtime head ofCatholic chaplains for the armed forces in the United States; St. Louisarchbishop Justin Rigali, a former Vatican diplomat who has sincebecome cardinal in Philadelphia; and Buffalo bishop Henry Mansell, aformer auxiliary to O’Connor, who remained close to him.

Theinfighting became fierce, especially when O’Connor heard that Egan wasin the mix as well. Egan fit the profile of appointments during thelast fifteen years of John Paul’s reign, when the pope overwhelminglyfavored company men with a degree from Rome, experience in a Vaticanoffice, and the powerful patrons that such a résumé brings. Egan knewthe school system in New York, which needed reforming, and he was aprodigious fund-raiser, which New York needed after O’Connor’sprofligate generosity. By those standards, Egan, a clerical lifer, wasideal.

ButO’Connor thought he’d more than done his duty by taking Egan as anauxiliary years earlier, and he wasn’t about to see Egan warm histhrone at St. Patrick’s. O’Connor wanted to see his friend HenryMansell take over, to the point that O’Connor halted his chem-otherapyand went to see the pope, ostensibly to plead for Mansell. O’Briendidn’t have much pull in the Roman Curia (the pope’s mini-government),but Rigali did, and the pope faced an ecclesiastical impasse. Eightdays after O’Connor died, the pope appointed Egan.

Followinga week’s worth of tributes to O’Connor, Egan was introduced to thepublic. From his first words at the news conference introducing him atthe Catholic chancery on First Avenue, his orotund speechifying, in avoice that sounded like Orson Welles (of the Gallo-wine-hawkingvintage), made him seem a churchman from another century. There wasnone of the avuncular warmth that O’Connor broadcast so easily to thepublic.

Eganwas given an impossible task. The landscape of the archdiocese wasshifting under the Church’s once-solid foundations. For nearly twocenturies, New York Catholicism was practically an Irish-runEstablishment overseeing a mosaic of stable ethnic enclaves. But nowthose old-time Catholic communities were spreading out to the suburbswhile new, poorer immigrants back-filled city parishes that had fewerpriests to staff them and little money to support them. Churches andschools would have to close, creating a sense that after 200 years ofsurging numbers and clout, New York Catholicism had become a matureindustry, religiously speaking, and was facing a discouraging phase ofdownsizing.

What’smore, part of O’Connor’s popularity was owed to the fact that he neverdenied anyone who came begging for a new program or for him to halt theclosing of an old parish—and he left the archdiocese with a $20million-a-year operating deficit and an infrastructure that needed aserious overhaul. During his tenure O’Connor reportedly blew throughtens of millions in reserves—“O’Connor spent like a drunken sailor,” asone priest said. O’Connor left bureaucracy on top of bureaucracy, withoverlapping offices and three or four different accounting programsthat made it difficult to figure out exactly how much money there was,and where it was going.

Egan’smandate was clear: Make tough decisions and then retire gracefully. In2000, John Paul was ailing and knew his time was short, and he wasconsistently appointing bishops in their late sixties and earlyseventies who would retire within a few years, thus freeing John Paul’seventual successor—now Pope Benedict XVI, who was elected in April2005—to remake the hierarchy as he liked.

Egangot right to work, early on displaying the distinct management stylethat led priests to dub him “Edward Scissorhands.” During a March 2001visit to the archdiocesan seminary in Yonkers, he began the meetingwith the assembled faculty of St. Joseph’s Seminary by announcing,according to a witness, “Gentlemen, hard decisions have to be made.” Hetold those gathered that he wanted to restore the intellectual lusterof the faculty, then snapped his fingers—“Literally, snapped hisfingers,” recalls one witness—for an aide to hand him a sheet of paper.The cardinal then proceeded to read, with great formality, a list offaculty names and their titles. When he was done, he paused andannounced, “If your name is not on this list, your services will nolonger be needed in September. Questions?”

Thoseleft off the list had been fired in public, and by default. It leftseveral of them devastated emotionally and financially, and many arestill angry. “It was done with such duplicity, such a lack of Christiancharity,” says one professor who was in the room that day. Surely, muchneeded to be done to bring the archdiocese out of the red, and thecardinal closed or consolidated many chancery offices. Staffers whohave worked with Egan say he seemed to want to stay as far removed fromthe emotional messiness of the budget cuts as possible. He formed fewrelationships with co-workers and answered those who inquired about thedifficulty in cutting back with a simple rejoinder: “Economics 101.”
 

New York’s clergy found themselves at arm’s length from their newleader in other ways as well. In theological terms, the bishop andpriest have a father-son relationship, and priests look to their bishopas their chief protector. But Egan was peremptory when engaged at closequarters and worryingly disconnected from their travails. As opposed toO’Connor, who stayed home every Wednesday to meet with any priestwithout an appointment, Egan made priests call a secretary. WhereO’Connor would meet with his priests several times a year, Egan metwith his regional vicars just once in six years. Several other priestsrecalled how, early in his tenure, Egan went around to the nineteenregional vicariates to meet with the priests in groups of a few dozenat a time. At many of them, he began the session by announcing, “Thisis a dialogue. But it is a dialogue in the Roman sense—I talk, youlisten.”

It’snot so much that the priests loved O’Connor—a highly controversialfigure with enemies inside and outside of the Church. But priests, atleast, felt that they could talk to him. They were proud that he wassuch a public presence and that he was one of them, a priest first andforemost, who would be there when they needed him.

Egan,in contrast, was always something of a loner, and he became moreisolated as time passed and the pressures of the job grew. He wouldcall priests late at night to complain about some petty slight, and hetried to have one priest’s authority to say Mass in the archdioceserevoked—a stunning maneuver that is tantamount to sacramentalcastration—because the priest spoke to a grassroots reform group Eganopposed. (“Egan will go after you until he gets you,” said one priestwho, like most of the dozens of clerics and Church officialsinterviewed for this article, would speak only on condition that hisname not be used.)

Eganmanaged to anger both sexual-abuse victims and clergy with his responseto the nationwide scandal that erupted in 2002, by far the biggestissue for the Catholic Church on Egan’s watch. Though he has never beenpublicly accused of wrongdoing in New York, Connecticut newspapersreported in 2002 that as head of the Bridgeport diocese, he’d shiftedpedophile clerics around to different parishes and that he repeatedlycast doubt on the allegations of victims. At first, Egan repeatedlyinsisted he had done nothing wrong. As the criticism mounted, heresponded by issuing a carefully worded statement allowing that “if inhindsight we also discover that mistakes may have been made as regardsprompt removal of priests and assistance to victims, I am deeplysorry.”

Assimilar cases around the country prompted the Church to reform itsprocedures—or lack thereof—for adjudicating abuse claims, Egan was anobdurate opponent of those early efforts. In 2002, about 290 fellowbishops from around the country designated a blue-ribbon panel ofCatholic laypersons, called the National Review Board, to oversee a newsystem of prevention and transparency. To Egan the board was tantamountto laypersons’ holding authority over a bishop, something he consideredto be against Church doctrine. In January 2003, when the board visitedNew York, Egan refused to say Mass for the group—as other bishops didwhen the board visited their cities—and made no other bishop availableto them.

Ayear later, a January 2004 audit by the board’s new Office of Child andYouth Protection gave New York a failing grade on implementing theChurch’s new policies. A month later, in the review board’s firstcomprehensive report on the scandal, the lay group singled out forpublic rebuke four of the 195 archbishops who head dioceses; Egan wasone of them.

Sincethen, he has brought the archdiocese into compliance—and then some. Thechief worry now among New York’s priests is that, lacking an ally inthe archbishop’s chair, they’ll have nowhere to turn if falselyaccused.

Amongthe many criticisms of Egan, the most potent is that his tenure hasbeen a lost opportunity. In New York, public presence translates intopolitical power, and many Catholics believe that Egan’s invisibilityhas shortchanged any number of items on their agenda, from schoolvouchers to abortion to anti-poverty programs. At his best, anarchbishop can offer comfort in the face of unfathomable loss, restorefaith to an institution that has turned its back on children, anddefend the rights of believers in a critical world. At a time whenCatholic identity is more fractured than ever, Egan has done little toinspire the masses.

Andyet, to Egan’s credit, he stands to leave the archdiocese in a muchbetter position than it’s been in a generation—a Church with enoughresources to face its third century in New York. While Egan has neverissued a financial statement or balance sheet for the archdiocese, hisassociates say he intends to have the outstanding debt paid off by thetime he leaves. If he succeeds, that would be a monumentalaccomplishment.

Thehardest part has been the “reorganization” of parishes and schools—aeuphemism for the inevitable job of closing churches and parochialschools that are draining scarce resources. Many bishops in old-linenortheastern and midwestern dioceses have had to downsize to somedegree, and most have done it badly—making cuts too quickly and deeply,without sufficient consultation. There’s almost no good way to shutterchurches and schools—Catholics can retain deep emotional attachmentslong after they move away from the old neighborhood, and even a rumoredclosing is enough to bring out protesters.
 

But Egan took his time with the process, spending three years on aplan and responding to appeals to spare several parishes and schools.“I think fair justice has to be done to him,” says Father JohnMcLoughlin, pastor of St. Ursula’s in Mount Vernon. “He might not bethe most popular archbishop of New York, but from what he has said andwhat he has presented at the Presbyteral Council, he has done a goodjob assuring our survivability … I give him a kudo on that one.”

EvenEgan’s harshest critics admit that he’s not solely to blame for hisshortcomings. In many ways, the system that nurtured Egan also betrayedhim. From the age of 14, he had been immured in an ecclesiasticalXanadu, a largely Roman world where bishops are still deferred to likeroyalty and indulged like dauphins. The problem, say many officials, isthat the Vatican pulled him up by the roots and thrust him into astrange land and under a harsh spotlight for which he was unprepared.“It’s a problem—and it’s not Egan’s fault—but this system drops someonein from the outside, and they’re lost,” says the former Churchofficial.

Severalyears ago, a small group of priests attended a luncheon hosted by Eganat his St. Patrick’s residence for a priest who had turned 75. It was apleasant afternoon, but what one priest remembers most vividly was thatEgan, then about 70, was able to tick off, with apparent anticipation,how many years, months, weeks, and days would pass until he himselfwould turn 75 and be eligible for retirement.

Thatday will finally come on April 2, at which point Egan is required bycanon law to submit his resignation. Pope Benedict’s predecessor, JohnPaul, tended to keep cardinals in situ well after that threshold—everybishop of the city so far has died with his miter on, so to speak.Until the recent blowup with his priests, Egan was considered a safebet to remain in place for at least another year, until the conclusionof a yearlong series of events marking the 200th birthday of the NewYork Archdiocese. If Benedict accepts his resignation anytime beforethat, Church observers say, it would be viewed as a sign that the popewas no happier with Egan than were the priests of New York. It’s hardto predict exactly what Benedict will do—he likes to keep his owncounsel rather than consult widely like John Paul did.

Then,of course, comes the question of Egan’s successor. Up to 25 Americanbishops, including five cardinals, are up for retirement this year, andjudging from the pontiff’s handful of appointments so far, he islooking for pragmatists rather than crusaders, bishops with thewillingness and intellectual chops to promote the faith in the publicsquare, but not publicity hounds—in other words, someone with Egan’srestraint and O’Connor’s pastoral instincts. Whoever he is, the NewYork appointment could well determine Benedict’s legacy with AmericanCatholics, just as John Paul made his mark with O’Connor in 1984.

Asfor Egan himself, whenever he leaves, he’s likely to return to what hedoes best, presiding at confirmations and baptisms, with the kind oflow-key presence he had before becoming cardinal-archbishop. Rome, ofcourse, is his favorite city. But with Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Lawbiding his time in a luxe Roman sinecure in the city’s glossiestbasilica, St. Mary Major, there aren’t many spots left for retiredAmerican cardinals with little to do and no place to do it.

Eganrecently hinted that he might spend time in France. Maybe that’s wherehe would finally be at home—far from New York and the shadow of his ownhistory.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 


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