Given all the hosannahs and sighs of relief emanating from St. Patrick’s Cathedral last week, you’d have thought the pope named President Obama the new archbishop of New York rather than Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee. (“Godsend!” hailed the Post, and Obama called him.) The unpretentious, beer-drinking Dolan was all man-hugs and wisecracks. (To parishioners who once complained about their pastor’s potty mouth, Dolan wrote: “Big damn deal. He’s staying.”)
No doubt it helped that Dolan is not Cardinal Edward Egan. Egan won’t be missed by many of his priests, or the 2.5 million in the archdiocese. Yes, he balanced the books (which needed it), but he was off-puttingly imperious. As for the flock, Egan was generally so invisible they may have been surprised to learn that he was the first of the city’s twelve bishops not to die in office.
The problem is going to be keeping the archdiocese alive. In New York, Catholicism looks like a Rust Belt industry: The next archbishop will likely have to close more parishes and schools, and even the practice of the faith here is in decline—lower Mass attendance, fewer marriages and priests. “Those are the things we bishops worry about,” Dolan admitted at his press conference. “It’s not the money stuff that keeps us awake at night.”
Still, money will be a nightmare. While other dioceses have been rocked by the clergy-sexual-abuse scandal and a tab of over $2 billion in settlements—six dioceses have filed for bankruptcy—New York has seemed blessed. But that’s likely a legalistic illusion. Boston and Philadelphia have endured harrowing revelations, with personnel files showing 7 percent of all priests, or higher, had abused children over the past half-century. New York’s self-reported rate was just 1.3 percent, easily the lowest among all 195 U.S. dioceses. Archdiocese spokesman Joe Zwilling had no explanation for the numbers but says they’re solid: “I would think people would want to applaud the good news.”
Forgive victims advocates if they don’t cheer. They say the numbers are artificially low because of New York State’s especially restrictive statute of limitations (minors used to have until they were 21 to report abuse—now it’s 23) and the fact that, unlike in other cities, prosecutors have not been able to look at the chancery’s records for themselves. All that could change, however, if Albany passes a new bill aimed at opening a one-year window to allow lawsuits for claims going back decades. Previous versions had been DOA in a Republican-dominated State Senate thanks to Majority Leader Joe Bruno. But Bruno is gone, and church officials are terrified that lifting the statute—as happened in California—could unleash a flood of lawsuits. Michael Dowd, a leading abuse-victims attorney, says he already has 175 waiting to file.
When asked about the statute reform, Dolan said, “That’s an area of such delicacy and precision that I’m going to have to study that one hard.” Privately, Egan has worried that if the legislation passes, he “might as well give the keys to St. Patrick’s Cathedral to the first crooked attorney who walks down Fifth Avenue.” Church officials are especially angry that the bill singles out the church by effectively exempting public schools. If it passes as is, Catholicism in New York could go under. St. Patrick’s as General Motors? Dolan may want to keep Obama’s number on his speed dial.