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The Cardinal’s Sins

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

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Cardinal Egan saying Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in December.  

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

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

The disloyalty he read in the priests’ faces this Monday in October reminded Egan of the ugly finale of his own mentor, Chicago’s cardinal John Cody. Cody, who died in 1982 under a cloud of scandal and recrimination, was one of those old-school churchmen whose long tenure was marked by a brittle and autocratic style. But then-father Edward Egan, who in the sixties served as personal secretary to Cody, stood by the cardinal to the end. Egan saw Cody as a role model and regularly championed his legacy, a past that was never as present as it was now for Egan as he approached the twilight of his own career.

The letter, signed by an anonymous “Committee of Concerned Clergy,” said that the relationship between the priests and a New York archbishop—the mortar that binds the hierarchy—had never “been so fractured and seemingly hopeless as it is now.”

The authors, who claimed they had to remain nameless because of “the severely vindictive nature of Cardinal Egan,” collated every criticism ever circulated about him—he was “arrogant and cavalier,” and especially “cruel and ruthless” toward priests, whom he treated with “dishonesty, deception, disinterest and disregard.” Egan had “an unnatural fear of the media” and had abdicated his role as a public figure and leader of the Catholic Church. And it called on the priests to act so that the Vatican would find a better man for the job.

Egan opened the session by reading, in full, an abject apology written to him by Monsignor Howard Calkins, a popular Westchester priest who, the previous day, had given an interview to the Daily News, in which he said that the letter reflected real anger at Egan. That was tantamount to betrayal in Egan’s mind, and Calkins, realizing he’d made a mistake, quickly wrote a personal letter to Egan offering to resign as head of the local vicariate, or region, and apologizing again for his “careless and ill-considered comments.” After reading Calkins’s letter, Egan called over his spokesman, Joseph Zwilling, and ordered him to release it to the media.

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

The room went silent. Egan announced that he needed to go upstairs for physical therapy on his knee, which still hurt after joint-replacement surgery in September, and then retired to his private quarters while the priests waited. For their part, they just wanted to get through the meeting and get back to their parishes unscathed, and the way Egan had handled Calkins convinced them that any hint of insurrection would be tantamount to clerical suicide. As the meeting stretched on for two hours, the priests agreed to a statement of support for Egan, saying they were “appalled” by the anonymous letter and “upset and dismayed that our Archbishop has been personally vilified in this manner.”


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