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Cardinal's Rules

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"I am aware," Egan said, "that there are a number of people who know one another, some are related to one another, have the same lawyers and so forth, I am aware of the circumstances, yes."

Later, according to the transcripts published in the Courant, Robinson questioned Egan about his stewardship of another accused priest, Laurence Brett: "He admits apparently that he had oral sex with this young boy and that he actually bit his penis and advised the boy to go to confession elsewhere?"

"Well, I think you're not exactly right," Egan replied. "It seemed to me that the gentleman in question was an 18-year-old student at Sacred Heart University."

"Are you aware of the fact," Robinson countered, "that in December of 1964 that an individual under 21 years of age was a minor in the state of Connecticut?"

"My problem, my clarification, had to do with the expression 'a young boy' about an 18-year-old," Egan said.

"A young -- all right, a minor, is that better, then?" Robinson said.

"Fine," Egan answered.

Egan is a skilled lawyer, so his narrow responses under hostile questioning were appropriate. More damaging is an Egan memo from 1990, regarding a meeting with the egregious Brett. "All things considered, he made a good impression," Egan wrote in his notes as quoted in the Courant. "In the course of our conversation, the particulars of his case came out in detail and grace."

Robinson isn't objective; she was trying to win money for her client. But her impression of Egan's performance in Bridgeport squares with other people's memories. "What's absent in Cardinal Egan and what's so disturbing is any sense of pastoral concern for victims who are all part of the Catholic faithful," Robinson says now. "He operates like a businessman. The striking thing with Egan during the whole course of the litigation was that he refused to comment on it. The first words I recall Egan saying publicly that indicated any sympathy or support or concern was most recently, when he's been under attack and issued a statement through his office in New York."

Some expected Egan to adopt a more sophisticated public approach when the current crisis broke. "This thing blew up in Boston, but we knew it was going to come to New York," a city priest says. "The archdiocese should have gotten ahead of the story. Isn't that what you always want to do? As soon as questions were raised here, they could have said, 'Look, we've already gotten all of our files and we've referred anything of interest to the district attorney; we've already done that.' That would have taken the steam out of the story. But there's something in the Catholic culture about 'We don't deal with the media.' It's paranoid. And good priests are taking a beating because Egan doesn't give us any support."

On Palm Sunday, from the St. Patrick's pulpit, Egan made his most extensive remarks on the scandal, vowing to prevent future abuse. His main comments have come in four written statements notable for their chilly, legalistic tone and for Egan's claim that he's relied on the evaluation of psychiatrists to determine which accused priests were fit to return to work. Egan's first and longest document came with a gag order: Pastors should not sermonize on the very subject that was foremost in parishioners' minds. "Why is the bishop trying to muzzle me from speaking about something that is so urgent to our people?" asks an outraged Manhattan priest. "It shows no faith in us. And why couldn't the letter have had some empathy in it? I mean, Con Edison could have written a warmer letter! Their statements don't say, 'Gee, our attorneys won't let us say we're really sorry that your gas is off.' "

In early April, as complaints about his intransigence escalated, Egan forwarded old sexual-abuse allegations to the Manhattan district attorney. Later, he announced he would suspend any priests accused of misconduct. Yet even Egan's friends are saddened and astonished by his clumsiness in managing the scandal. "He wants to tamp it down, but you can't do it this way," a longtime associate says. "You subdue the frenzy by dealing with the frenzy up front. It's painful to see him go through this. My guess is he's talking to Rome and getting his advice from there."

Inside Egan's bunker, they're indignant about all the criticism. "He's communicated directly with the parishes in letters that have been sent out; it's a matter of public record," seethes a crusty monsignor. "What the papers are sore about is that he doesn't deal directly with them. That's the way he's selected to do it, because they've misquoted him and put wrong stories in. Why should he be bothered acceding to any request they're making?"

Egan is right to be skeptical of the media. But not all his communication problems are the fault of microphones and newsprint.

One week after returning from the sexual-abuse summit in Rome, Egan invited his diocesan priests to Yonkers. Five hundred showed up, willing to listen, but many with clear memories of the first time Egan had asked them all to St. Joseph's Seminary for a chat.

It was July 2000, a month after Egan's arrival in New York, and the occasion was an informal get-to-know-you barbecue. "It was an attempt to reach out, and that was good," one priest says. "He was gregarious." In smaller social settings, Egan drops the lugubrious baritone that he uses from the pulpit, the medieval tone that makes him sound as if he were playing a priest in a Vincent Price movie. Yet even out on the seminary lawn, Egan wasn't completely at ease. "He wore a green sports shirt," a Manhattan priest says, "but he didn't allow anyone to take a picture of him in it."

Inside the St. Joseph's Seminary gym on the morning of April 29, priests gathered around small tables and listened anxiously to the archbishop. They were reassured by hearing a somber Egan express sincere sorrow for the abused children. They were curious about his plan to raise money for a legal defense fund that would be strictly separate from archdiocese accounts. They weren't surprised when Egan complained about the media harassing him -- only that he took evident delight in keeping the press guessing as to the exact number of New York priests who've been suspended.

Far more disturbing was Egan's proportioning of victimhood. "He thinks the innocent priests and the church are the martyrs in this, not the kids," one appalled priest says. "He still just doesn't get what people are angry about."

Perhaps for once, Cardinal Edward Egan could direct his gaze down the church ladder instead of up. He'd see the only true Christian charity to emerge from this tawdry saga. In a cramped midtown rectory, a priest puts down the morning's tabloids, their headlines announcing the summary dismissal of six unidentified Catholic pastors. The priest's hands are shaking. He has no sexual-abuse worries of his own, but he's rattled both by the evil in the church ranks and by his leadership's cold-blooded response to the crisis.

"Every priest swears an allegiance to the archbishop of New York," the priest says quietly. "Do I like him? I don't know. But I am called to love him."


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