New York’s clergy found themselves at arm’s length from their new leader in other ways as well. In theological terms, the bishop and priest have a father-son relationship, and priests look to their bishop as their chief protector. But Egan was peremptory when engaged at close quarters and worryingly disconnected from their travails. As opposed to O’Connor, who stayed home every Wednesday to meet with any priest without an appointment, Egan made priests call a secretary. Where O’Connor would meet with his priests several times a year, Egan met with his regional vicars just once in six years. Several other priests recalled how, early in his tenure, Egan went around to the nineteen regional vicariates to meet with the priests in groups of a few dozen at a time. At many of them, he began the session by announcing, “This is a dialogue. But it is a dialogue in the Roman sense—I talk, you listen.”
It’s not so much that the priests loved O’Connor—a highly controversial figure with enemies inside and outside of the Church. But priests, at least, felt that they could talk to him. They were proud that he was such a public presence and that he was one of them, a priest first and foremost, who would be there when they needed him.
Egan, in contrast, was always something of a loner, and he became more isolated as time passed and the pressures of the job grew. He would call priests late at night to complain about some petty slight, and he tried to have one priest’s authority to say Mass in the archdiocese revoked—a stunning maneuver that is tantamount to sacramental castration—because the priest spoke to a grassroots reform group Egan opposed. (“Egan will go after you until he gets you,” said one priest who, like most of the dozens of clerics and Church officials interviewed for this article, would speak only on condition that his name not be used.)
Egan managed to anger both sexual-abuse victims and clergy with his response to the nationwide scandal that erupted in 2002, by far the biggest issue for the Catholic Church on Egan’s watch. Though he has never been publicly accused of wrongdoing in New York, Connecticut newspapers reported in 2002 that as head of the Bridgeport diocese, he’d shifted pedophile clerics around to different parishes and that he repeatedly cast doubt on the allegations of victims. At first, Egan repeatedly insisted he had done nothing wrong. As the criticism mounted, he responded by issuing a carefully worded statement allowing that “if in hindsight we also discover that mistakes may have been made as regards prompt removal of priests and assistance to victims, I am deeply sorry.”
As similar cases around the country prompted the Church to reform its procedures—or lack thereof—for adjudicating abuse claims, Egan was an obdurate opponent of those early efforts. In 2002, about 290 fellow bishops from around the country designated a blue-ribbon panel of Catholic laypersons, called the National Review Board, to oversee a new system of prevention and transparency. To Egan the board was tantamount to laypersons’ holding authority over a bishop, something he considered to be against Church doctrine. In January 2003, when the board visited New York, Egan refused to say Mass for the group—as other bishops did when the board visited their cities—and made no other bishop available to them.
A year later, a January 2004 audit by the board’s new Office of Child and Youth Protection gave New York a failing grade on implementing the Church’s new policies. A month later, in the review board’s first comprehensive report on the scandal, the lay group singled out for public rebuke four of the 195 archbishops who head dioceses; Egan was one of them.
Since then, he has brought the archdiocese into compliance—and then some. The chief worry now among New York’s priests is that, lacking an ally in the archbishop’s chair, they’ll have nowhere to turn if falsely accused.
Among the many criticisms of Egan, the most potent is that his tenure has been a lost opportunity. In New York, public presence translates into political power, and many Catholics believe that Egan’s invisibility has shortchanged any number of items on their agenda, from school vouchers to abortion to anti-poverty programs. At his best, an archbishop can offer comfort in the face of unfathomable loss, restore faith to an institution that has turned its back on children, and defend the rights of believers in a critical world. At a time when Catholic identity is more fractured than ever, Egan has done little to inspire the masses.
And yet, to Egan’s credit, he stands to leave the archdiocese in a much better position than it’s been in a generation—a Church with enough resources to face its third century in New York. While Egan has never issued a financial statement or balance sheet for the archdiocese, his associates say he intends to have the outstanding debt paid off by the time he leaves. If he succeeds, that would be a monumental accomplishment.
The hardest part has been the “reorganization” of parishes and schools—a euphemism for the inevitable job of closing churches and parochial schools that are draining scarce resources. Many bishops in old-line northeastern and midwestern dioceses have had to downsize to some degree, and most have done it badly—making cuts too quickly and deeply, without sufficient consultation. There’s almost no good way to shutter churches and schools—Catholics can retain deep emotional attachments long after they move away from the old neighborhood, and even a rumored closing is enough to bring out protesters.