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Cardinal's Rules


Considering Egan's public aloofness and brutal managerial hand, it is startling to hear the private man repeatedly described as engaging, entertaining, and witty. "He's a very affable, very friendly man," says a New York bishop who is nonetheless afraid to be quoted by name. "He's extraordinary in his kindness toward the people who work in the residence, people who cook for us and clean and look after us."

"When you meet him, he's thoughtful, he's got a great sense of humor, he's extremely well versed in music," says Peter Flanigan, the UBS Warburg adviser who helped launch New York's Student Sponsor Partners, which places students in Catholic schools and pairs them with tuition donors, adding 1,600 kids and $6 million to the church-school roster annually. Flanigan has been friendly with Egan since 1987. "He has gravitas and force, but he's in no way stiff," Flanigan says. "He had an opera gala night in Bridgeport, to which a lot of people from the Met would come and perform. I've been to the opera with him; we went to Fidelio, and I remember saying, 'This is my favorite opera.' And he said, 'Mine too.' "

Richard Gilder, the conservative Wall Street financier, has chewed over education policy with Egan. "He's much warmer than O'Connor, and I think less of a bullshitter," Gilder says. "I always thought O'Connor was sort of a little bit of a blowhard. This guy isn't. He's much more of a man's man." Gilder pauses. "I shouldn't say that in this connection. He's just a good guy."

Egan inherited a second ugly problem from his predecessor as bishop of Bridgeport. Lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by diocesan priests began cropping up in the early nineties. At first, Egan spared the church substantial embarrassment and costly settlements. His strategy was simple.

"Egan dug his heels in. He refused to budge," says Raymond B. Rubens, the lawyer for the Reverend Raymond Pcolka, former pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Greenwich. More than a dozen people, men and women, had accused Pcolka of molesting them in various parishes from 1966 to 1982. "I recall talking with attorneys for the other defendants, who'd been hired by the diocese, and telling them they were nuts -- the diocese had to settle these cases," Rubens says. "I said, 'If there's any truth to this, it'll damage the church.' And they told me, point-blank, as long as Egan was there, there wasn't going to be any settlement. Obviously, Egan wanted to become a cardinal."

But a 1997 case finally forced Egan to publicly confront the issue. The Reverend Laurence Brett was accused of sexually abusing Frank Martinelli, a student at Stamford Catholic High School, in the early sixties. Brett had been sent to New Mexico for psychiatric counseling after admitting he bit a boy's penis to prevent him from ejaculating during oral sex, then continued to work under the supervision of the Bridgeport diocese until the early nineties, well into Egan's term.

In 1997, Martinelli sued the Bridgeport diocese for damages. Egan claimed he was scheduled to be in Rome and couldn't show up in court, but he agreed to testify on videotape. In his answers, Egan debates semantics and expresses no sympathy for the victim. He argues that priests are "self-employed" because they draw salaries from individual parishes.

William Laviano, the plaintiffs' lawyer, asks Egan about a diocese memo distributed while Brett was away for treatment. The memo says, "A recurrence of hepatitis was to be feigned should anyone ask" about Brett's absence. "Is it your understanding of this reference that if anybody asked why Brett was gone, somebody should lie and say he had hepatitis, right?" Laviano says on the video.

"If you want to interpret it that way," Egan replies, "but that is not what it says." Laviano asks Egan about the meaning of the word feign. Egan tries to play it off to sloppy writing: "What you have here is a young priest, who was vice-chancellor, using a word with a certain flair." Egan's combative testimony in the Brett case drew little attention beyond Connecticut; Martinelli and the diocese agreed to a settlement in April 2000.

That same month, the pope was preparing to send Egan to rescue another diocese with massive debts: New York. In choosing Egan, the pope overruled a Vatican nominating committee -- and disregarded the wishes of Cardinal O'Connor, who'd made one last trip to Rome to lobby against Egan as his successor before succumbing to a brain tumor in May 2000. Egan's selection as the new archbishop of New York set off a flurry of action in Bridgeport as well. "Once Egan left," says Rubens, the Connecticut defense lawyer, "the settlements took place in jig time." The diocese, admitting there had been "incidents of sexual abuse," paid roughly $12 million to settle 26 cases against five priests.

Egan had already moved on without major damage to his personal reputation, though, and now he had far bigger numbers to worry about in New York.

By the end of O'Connor's sixteen-year tenure, the archdiocese of New York was bleeding $20 million annually. Egan slashed civilian staffing inside 1011 First Avenue, the archdiocese headquarters. He tabled most construction projects. Egan also saved money and sent a message by shrinking Catholic New York -- the weekly archdiocese newspaper became a monthly. Under O'Connor, CNY was a closely watched political organ. "Egan doesn't write," says a senior New York priest who considers the cardinal a friend. "O'Connor was an incessant writer and communicator. And Egan is an overachiever on a number of scores, but on no score so much as demonstrating that he is not John O'Connor."

Parish priests complain that Egan has kept them in the dark on issues large and small, switching their health-insurance carrier and replacing the leadership of St. Joseph's Seminary without warning. "He came in and said, 'If your name is not on this list, you're not working here anymore,' " one priest says.

Egan raised the goal of the yearly Cardinal's Appeal, a spring fund-raising drive, by as much as 150 percent in some parishes and brought in Community Counselling Services, the corporate consultant he'd used in Connecticut, to run it, inducing widespread grousing. The Appeal has raised just $8.2 million toward its goal of $15 million, so its deadline has been extended until the end of June.

As a pastor, Egan also draws mixed reviews. He is keeping to his promise to preach two Sundays a month in churches other than St. Patrick's until he visits all 413 parishes in the archdiocese, which includes Westchester, the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island. When the World Trade Center was attacked, Egan's initial response was a healing one: He went to St. Vincent's Hospital, expecting to help comfort survivors.

Still, Egan's whereabouts in the days after September 11 became a source of controversy. In early October, he stuck to his schedule and flew to Rome to preside over a monthlong bishops' synod. Egan conducted a special, poignant Mass for rescue workers at St. Patrick's, but his low profile led to the myth that Egan had high-tailed it to Italy on September 12 and refused to return.

"That was a real bum rap," says a priest who is generally no fan of Egan's. "But the reason he got accused this way was that he was so damn invisible in the media. He was here, but he wasn't doing things publicly the way the cardinal archbishop of New York should. He has no appreciation for his symbolic leadership role."

For all the bumps, though, after two years in charge, Egan was well on his way to another victory. His touch with the elites remains deft. In March, Howard Rubenstein, the public-relations man who is one of the city's savviest power brokers, hosted a dinner for 35 at his East Side home with Egan as the guest of honor.

"He's made a really good impression on a lot of people," says Rubenstein, who is on the board of directors of the church-affiliated Inner-City Scholarship Fund. "He pays attention when you're talking to him; he really focuses on you. We were talking about Israel, the heritage that Catholicism grew from, and he was able to quote from the Old Testament and the New. He amazes me in his knowledge, of Judaism as well as Catholicism. He's got a great sense of humor. He talks about Chicago politics with a real glint in his eye."

Egan is on target to cut the $20 million archdiocese deficit in half by September, and eliminate it completely in the next fiscal year. When he came to New York, analysts predicted a wave of Catholic school closings; so far Egan has kept open all but three. So it must gall him that the magic he's performed with New York's financial morass, the whole reason he came here, is quickly being buried by the clamor about old sexual misdeeds.

At first, Boston's Cardinal Law was the scandal's leading villain. Then, in March, the Hartford Courant published sealed transcripts of Egan's depositions in a 1999 pretrial hearing. Suddenly the behavior of Raymond Pcolka came back to haunt Egan. A dozen former altar boys and parishioners had accused the former priest of heinous acts. "Let us please remember," Egan said, according to the Courant, "that the twelve have never been proved to be telling the truth."

Cindy Robinson, the plaintiff's lawyer, asked Egan if he was aware that the cases against Pcolka involved oral sex, sodomy, and beatings. "I am not aware of any of those things," Egan said. "I am aware of the claims of those things, the allegations of those things."

Robinson parried: "And you are clearly aware of the number of people that are making these similar claims during the same period of time, over a long period of time, involving Father Pcolka, correct?"

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