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Cardinal's Rules

Edward Egan climbed fast thanks to his gifts as a canon lawyer -- "I think in Latin," he's said -- and as a "man's man" whose ease with the powerful makes him an expert fund-raiser. Rome may be happy with his work. But the crisis is in New York.

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The Cardinal came to bless the computers. One million dollars' worth of new PCs and dataports in the renovated library of the College of New Rochelle. After accepting an honorary degree and two standing ovations from students and faculty, Cardinal Edward Egan smiles and waves his hands over the Dells, those gleaming, blinking agents and symbols of modernity, openness, and the free flow of ideas.

Then the archbishop of New York flees the information age, sneaking out the library's back door.

The New Rochelle campus is not a large place, however. All exits are being watched. Now a dozen minicams and fifteen reporters stampede toward Egan.

"Cardinal, what about the pedophile priests?"

"Archbishop Egan, have you heard from the district attorney?"

"Who are the six priests you suspended?"

"Do you have anything to say to the victims?"

Imposing at six foot two and well over 200 pounds, regal in black cassock and red skullcap, Egan never breaks stride. The scrum of reporters backpedals, trips, tangles. Egan never makes eye contact. He remains as serene as the lush green spring grass. His only words are to his beleaguered spokesman, Joseph Zwilling. "Which way are we going?" he says in a low rumble, having momentarily lost sight of his waiting black limo, the one sitting curbside with the engine running. Zwilling points. Egan picks up speed.

The rear door of the limo opens. The media pack closes in. Egan bends, sits, the door slams shut. The limo races away, déjà vu rising in its exhaust. This scene has been played many times before, but it lacks one detail: A cop's hand on the top of Egan's head, that oddly gentle gesture of concern for a perp's skull as the accused is folded into a squad car.

When it comes to coddling perverts, the record of Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law is far worse. But somehow, Cardinal Egan acts guiltier.

As the headlines about sexual abuse and Roman Catholic priests have grown more revolting and frequent, Egan, one of the American church's most influential figures, presiding in the nation's media capital, has grown ever more remote. "I have no question about his deep faith and piety and devotion," says a frustrated New York cleric who is friendly with Egan. "But I really don't understand what he is doing. He lacks a pastoral sense -- the touch of understanding what goes to the heart of faith and of the mystery of the sacraments and of the church and of the Gospel. He acts as if he had something to hide -- or that he's just above it all."

The dismay over Egan isn't just quibbling about style. "He's got a tough job, and I want to help him," an anguished Upper West Side priest says. "I just wish he'd make it easier to help him."

And Egan, in one sense, is also a victim: of the Vatican's flawed promotion process. The city's Catholic flock has been whipsawed between John O'Connor, who was charismatic but who nearly bankrupted the archdiocese, and Egan, a wizard of finance in a moment crying out for prodigious empathy. Parishioners see the archbishop of New York as a public leader, but Pope John Paul II has different priorities when selecting key lieutenants. "This pope rewards loyalty much more than competence or creativity," a veteran city priest says.

The nuances of power inside the Beltway are simple compared with those inside the Tiber, and Egan has long been a master of the Vatican's arcane politics. Openness and empathy are not what propelled Egan to the highest honor of his career. It was a skill for climbing bureaucratic heights that earned him the nickname Alpine Ed.

The cardinal enjoys using his substantial power over the lives of New York priests, dictating everything from budgets to altar design. "In private, he comes across like a gangster," says a New York cleric who has known Egan long and well. "But our gangster, on the right side." This senior official admires Egan but nonetheless keeps a cautious distance. "He's tough, very tough, very caustic in his judgments of things that he thinks are being done wrong. Very candid about who's up, who's down, who's screwing up. He's a political, streetwise operator -- not for nothing he's a Chicago kid."

From the outside, it may look as if Egan is engaged in a Nixonian coverup. But the cardinal is ever focused on the inside game: His actions are apparently driven by his astute readings of the Vatican politburo. At the highest levels of the church, the sexual-abuse scandal is also the latest skirmish in a long-running power struggle between the American bishops' conference and the Vatican. The conference leadership pushed for a "one strike and you're out" sexual-abuse standard during the recent Vatican summit. The pope and his inner circle demurred -- leaving power in the hands of the Vatican and individual bishops, even if it was terrible P.R.

Egan is solidly in the Roman camp, and the relations he cares about aren't remotely public. His defensive strategy has played far better in the Vatican, a place to which Egan would happily return. "He's been a hierarchical apparatchik all his life," says a priest familiar with Egan's life and thinking. "Don't get me wrong -- I think he's a very devout believer, a prayerful man, a man of great personal integrity. But he's very ambitious, and has a very clear trajectory in mind as to what God and the church want him to do. He has an astonishing confidence in his own judgment. That undoubtedly has everything to do with why he has such a narrow circle of consultation -- or none at all."

And he isn't about to change now, at the age of 70. "Ed," says Father Dick Ehrens, a pal of Egan's since they were teenage freshman seminarians, "is indomitable."

Oak Park, Illinois, is famous as the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway. It is Edward Egan's hometown as well. The Oak Park of Egan's childhood, in the thirties and forties, was an upper-middle-class Chicago suburb, with masterpiece Frank Lloyd Wright–designed houses and leafy, shaded streets. "The cardinal is lace-curtain Irish," an Egan supporter says. "Not like me -- shanty Irish."

Egan was the third of four children, and the second son. Polio struck him down as a 10-year-old. "Father Tim Lyne was then a young priest at St. John's in Oak Park, and he would take Eddie Communion in the mornings, at Ed's home," Ehrens says. "For a kid to be getting Holy Communion like that was kind of special." Those priestly house calls were the first in Egan's string of attachments to powerful patrons: Lyne became the second-highest-ranking bishop in Chicago.

Egan's father was a successful salesman, his mother a teacher, and he was close to an uncle who was a doctor. "Ed's father would have been happier if Ed had gone into business," Ehrens says. "But Ed had his calling."

Ehrens remembers visiting the Egan house on weekends and vacations. "At the end of dinner, we'd all gather around the piano and we'd sing everything," he says. "Ed could play anything, from the classics to the modern stuff. His mom would sing as loud as the rest of us. The dad, though, he'd slip upstairs. Ed has got the drive his father had, but he's got the softness his mom had."

First in his class every semester, student-body president, Egan was a star seminarian, and at 21, he was selected for polishing in Rome. Egan fell in love with Vatican politics and the ancient city itself. Though he has served in important American roles -- first as an apprentice to Chicago cardinals Albert Meyer and John Cody ("Ed knew all the people in power in Chicago, how to deal with them; he knew their tactics," Ehrens says), then as bishop of Bridgeport -- Egan has always seemed most at home in Italy. Egan's only brief experience as a common priest was in 1958 -- and not in some scruffy neighborhood parish but at Chicago's Holy Name Cathedral. A short teaching stint, a judgeship on the Vatican's highest court, and a series of weighty executive jobs mean Egan has spent most of his 45 years as a priest behind desks.

Egan has a graduate degree in canon law, and in the early eighties, it landed him a coveted position redrafting the code of canon law. Part of the job entailed sitting with the pope each morning at breakfast, explaining the changes. Father Roger Caplis remembers Egan visiting from Rome once during those days. Caplis, a seminary pal of Egan's, invited his illustrious friend to appear on a Catholic TV show he hosted in Chicago. "Ed had always been one of the more articulate guys, and on the show he was searching for a word -- this is unbelievable for Ed," Caplis says. "Afterward, I said, 'Eddie, what happened?' He said, 'You know, I think in Latin.' "

John O'Connor's smarts were honed in far different places: his blue-collar family home in West Philadelphia and the U.S. Navy. In 1985, the pope dispatched Egan to work for Cardinal O'Connor in New York, as vicar for education. The friction started before Egan even unpacked. O'Connor needled the new man by saying Egan had requested an apartment spacious enough to accommodate his grand piano. "He has indicated that he'll be needing very large quarters, and I have found them," O'Connor said. "Across the river, in Newark."

In 1988, Egan gladly accepted appointment as bishop of Bridgeport. Then he got a look at the diocese's multi-million-dollar debt.

The fiscal mess enabled him to build a reputation as a management genius. He demonstrated a gift for reeling in donors, many of them top corporate executives: Louis Gerstner, IBM's boss; Lawrence Bossidy, the head of Allied Signal; and NBC's Bob Wright. GE's Jack Welch became such a cherished friend that Egan acted as a personal Roman tour guide for Welch's then happily married second wife, Jane. A 1993 Egan fund-raising campaign with a goal of $30 million raked in $45 million. Egan also revamped the recruitment of potential priests and dramatically increased vocations in Bridgeport.


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