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The Cardinal’s Sins

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Egan during his 2000 installation Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral.  

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

Then he followed up a week later with a lengthy column in the archdiocesan paper, calling the anonymous letter “a secret, a secret of cowards.” (Egan suggested that the author was a layperson, because in his view the letter-writer used the word disinterested incorrectly, a mistake he hoped no priest would commit.) And again, Egan went after Calkins—naming him seven more times and dismissing his apology as “a partial correction” and “a curious protest of loyalty.” And he complained that the newspapers used a picture of Calkins “in priestly vestments, kneeling and embracing an African-American girl of six or seven years of age,” while he, Egan, was shown “with a twisted expression on my face.”

Whatever comity the earlier meeting had achieved quickly ended. On his influential blog, Father Richard John Neuhaus, a prominent conservative and editor of the religio-political journal First Things, wrote that Egan’s follow-up letter was “ill-advised and that the approach he has outlined is more likely to exacerbate than to resolve current discontents.” Even while criticizing the writers’ anonymity, Neuhaus added that their claim of widespread dissatisfaction with Egan contained “a strong measure of truth.”

Even after nearly seven years as archbishop, Egan remains a distant figure in Catholic life. In mid-January, he concluded the biggest public project of his tenure when he announced the closing of 21 parishes—a centerpiece of his nearly completed goal of restoring the battered finances of the archdiocese, a plan that also included the closing of nine schools. While Egan managed to spare a third of the institutions initially targeted for closure, mercy will not be what he’s remembered for.

Historically, the city’s top priest has been a tribal chieftain as much as a spiritual leader—a man who represents the pride of a blue-collar immigrant community that overcame prejudice and hardship to become the most prominent and powerful religious force in the city. Every bishop has a threefold mandate, “to teach, to sanctify, and to govern,” and New York churchmen have made full use of those powers, from “Dagger John” Hughes, the fearsome prelate who laid the cornerstone of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1858, to Francis Spellman, whose influence earned his residence the nickname of “the Powerhouse,” to Egan’s immediate predecessor, the mediagenic and immensely popular John O’Connor, who clashed with Catholic pols like Mario Cuomo, co-authored a book, His Eminence and Hizzoner, with Ed Koch, and brought the pope to Central Park. Even Cardinal Terence Cooke, who reigned between Spellman and O’Connor, was a man to be reckoned with despite a quiet demeanor.

Not so Egan. From the start, he approached the job more as a private administrator than as a civic leader. He eschewed partisan politics and shunned the media. For many years, O’Connor would talk to reporters after Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s, guaranteeing Monday-morning headlines 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 TV interviews, at Christmas and Easter. Even as pastor to a flock of 3 million Catholics who worship in more than 400 parishes from Staten Island to Sullivan County, he tended to be the classic “office priest,” operating from behind a desk and making periodic Sunday visits to local parishes.

In fact, from the time he arrived for his first New York stint in 1985, as an auxiliary to O’Connor, Egan has seemed temperamentally ill-suited to the city, a mismatch that in retrospect makes the ragged end of his career almost foreordained. O’Connor had been only recently transferred from Scranton, Pennsylvania, to take over the New York Archdiocese when Pope John Paul II asked him to take on Egan as a bishop. O’Connor had spent 27 years in the U.S. Navy as a chaplain, rising to the rank of rear admiral, and he would never refuse his higher-ups. But that’s not to say he liked the decision, or Egan himself.

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


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