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Remembering Cardinal Egan

Editor’s Note: NY’s retired Cardinal Edward Egan, a friend to several of us at TCT and a supporter of our work, passed away last week. His funeral is being held this afternoon. He did not play a prominent national role during his time in New York – he regarded his primary work as administering and bolstering the archdiocese with which he had been entrusted, two tasks that he carried out with great energy and skill. And his whole life was quietly dedicated to the Church, as can be seen in this special memoir. – Robert Royal

I was staying at the Vatican’s Santa Marta Hotel, built by St. John Paul II, last Thursday when I received news of Cardinal Edward Egan’s death. As I was reflecting on Egan’s remarkable priesthood and on our twenty-five-year friendship, it struck me that I was in the very place that he stayed when he served as Rapporteur General of the 2001 Synod of Bishops. It was then that he met and became good friends with the Deputy Rapporteur – a little known prelate from Argentina named Jorge Mario Bergoglio – the future Pope Francis, who now lives in Casa Santa Marta.

I have been writing (together with Brad Miner) The Sons of St. Patrick: A History of the Archbishops of New York, and I spent a lot of time with Egan over the last eight months. Thanks to those lively and blunt discussions, I learned not only about his life, but about his views on the inner workings of the New York Archdiocese and the Vatican.

Born in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1932, Egan graduated at the top of his class at St. Giles Parish Grammar School, despite being bedridden at home for two years fighting polio. He then entered Quigley Preparatory Seminary where he served as editor of the school newspaper and the yearbook, and was elected president of the senior class. Receiving the top grade at the senior seminary, St. Mary of the Lake, Cardinal Samuel Stritch sent Egan to the North American College in Rome to continue his studies.

He was ordained in Rome on December 15, 1957, returned to Chicago, and was assigned as ninth curate at Holy Name Cathedral. A few months later, Chicago’s new Archbishop, Albert Meyer, seeking a secretary who could write fluent Italian to handle his dealings with the Vatican, chose the only priest who fit the bill – Edward Egan.

Later, as Meyer’s master of ceremonies and assistant chancellor, Egan learned the basics of archdiocesan finance, insurance, real estate, and administration – skills that would serve him well in years to come.

He returned to the North American College in 1960 as a repetitor – a priest assigned to assist seminarians in their studies – and earned an MA in theology and a doctorate in Canon Law, before being called back to Chicago by Archbishop John Cody in 1965.

Egan served as Cody’s secretary and co-chancellor, and oversaw commissions for ecumenism, interfaith relations, social justice, and racial equality in housing and employment. In those posts, he wound down several of the fringe elements in the Chicago Church who had adopted Saul Alinsky’s views and tactics.

A judge of the Roman Rota, with Pope Paul VI, c. 1972
A judge of the Roman Rota, Msgr. Egan with Pope Paul VI, c. 1972

The cardinal told me that one evening he was taken to a restaurant to meet Alinsky. Finding the professional rabble-rouser vulgar and intemperate – particularly in his views of the Church – Egan left the before dinner was served.

Again he was called back in Rome in January 1972, this time as a judge of the Tribunal of the Sacred Roman Rota (the highest appellate court in the Church). He also taught law at the Gregorian University and the Studium Rotale.

On the Rota, Msgr. Egan resisted the prevailing practice of granting annulments for newly devised reasons. Egan said that “the discussion had lost all balance well before my assignment to the Curia.” He continued: “My reaction to all this was quite negative and even a bit angry. This of course [did not endear] me . . . to many of the Rota lawyers and not a few of the judges who were striving at all cost to uncover new bases for freeing unhappy couples from the bond of matrimony.”

During this stint in the Vatican, Egan became good friends with St. John Paul; the two worked closely revising the Code of Canon Law. They dined together frequently and the pope permitted Egan to use the back door in the kitchen to enter the papal apartment unannounced.

Upsetting powerful churchmen with his Rota decisions, Egan was sent to New York in 1985 as an auxiliary bishop. Feeling that the Vatican had foisted Egan on him, Cardinal John O’Connor’s relationship with Egan was less than cordial. Outside of staff meetings, Egan spent very little time with his archbishop. Nevertheless, he worked diligently as vicar of education and negotiated a new teacher agreement that was fair to both sides.

At an October 1988 ad limina meeting of New York bishops, John Paul II expressed his surprise that his old friend was not already an ordinary. So several weeks later he named Egan bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut. The appointment, Egan told me, “brought an end to a rather awkward situation” in New York.

During his twelve years in Bridgeport, Egan successfully reorganized the diocese, believing the focus should be on pastors and that the parish should be the center of activities. “Bishops and their staffs,” he said, should be “servants to the community of faithful.”

When Egan became Archbishop of New York, he applied the same approach to the financially ailing archdiocese. Egan worked hard to eliminate the $20-million structural operating deficit and to pay off $200 million in inherited debt.

As for his handling of the priest predator crisis, both in Bridgeport and New York, Egan, like Cardinal O’Connor, followed the approved Vatican process with the accused priests he had inherited. He sent them for psychiatric evaluation and abided by the directives of the psychiatrists.

In Egan’s judgment, the treatments conducted by the institutions to which priests were sent, and which were praised by the New York Times and other leaders of public opinion, proved for the most part to be futile. He said later: “I lost all confidence in the analysis and forecasts of even the most highly esteemed exponents of the psychiatric community.” Egan was also disgusted with the Vatican’s bureaucratic bungling of cases of admitted and convicted priest predators. Twice he went to Rome – once with Philadelphia Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua – to urge reform and streamlining of the laicization process for proven offenders.

Fr. Andrew Greeley, in a syndicated column, claimed that Egan threw his priests under the bus by calling them “independent contractors.” This is false, and the deposition transcripts, which I have read, prove it.

Then Bishop Egan with Cardinal John O'Connor and Pope St. John Paul II, c. 1990
Then Bishop Egan with Cardinal John O’Connor and Pope St. John Paul II, c. 1990

As Egan was leaving Bridgeport, given the much improved financial condition of the diocese, the Bridgeport administrator during the interregnum, Msgr. Laurence Bronkiewicz, was advised and agreed to settle all cases out of court for approximately $8 million in order to give Egan’s successor an altogether clean slate when he took over as ordinary.

In New York, Egan hired a law firm to examine the files of every priest of the archdiocese going back fifty years to identify any abuse cases. The investigation took a year and a half, and the district attorneys in the eight affected counties served by the archdiocese were given the relevant files, all of which were officially closed.

While the Archdiocese of Los Angeles made payments in 2007 of $660 million to settle 500 clerical abuse cases, New York, under Egan, spent $8.2 million on cases that he inherited. Most of the expenditures were used to pay for psychological counseling. And the money came from the insurance fund and investments. No real estate was sold to make the payments.

On September 11, 2001, moments after arriving in a police car at the World Trade Center site, Egan witnessed the second tower crash to the ground. At that point, Mayor Giuliani and Egan agreed that it made more sense for the cardinal to go to St. Vincent’s Hospital on West 14th St., to help with the injured. At the hospital, he put on scrubs, was handed a gas mask, and began ministering to the injured and anointing the dead.

Egan spent the better part of the next five days near Ground Zero, at St. Vincent’s Hospital, or at the morgue at Chelsea Piers. He was also celebrating Masses for the city and the nation at the cathedral and presided over funerals for many victims. In one homily he referred to Ground Zero as Ground Hero. As was his custom, he refused to grandstand, and was unjustly criticized by some clergy that he was not visible enough in the post-9/11 period.

While New York is a wealthy city, the archdiocese has been relatively poor. Many parishes and schools have not been self-supporting. While Egan had to close 25 elementary schools, one high school, and 8 parishes, he worked long hours every day to secure the monies necessary to support the remaining archdiocesan infrastructure. This meant courting rich people, who are plentiful in New York and will help if cultivated

Thanks to Egan’s success in raising money, when he retired in 2009, the archdiocese was debt-free and had money in the bank. Also, enrollment in Catholic schools had risen by 15,400 and of those attending the 115 inner-city schools, 65 percent came from families living below the federal poverty line. Thirteen churches were totally renovated, 6 were expanded, 7 new churches were constructed or begun, and 8 parishes expanded their facilities.

Cardinal Egan, like his predecessors, had friends and foes among the archdiocesan clergy. Some viewed him as a tough, humorless, aloof, taskmaster who was also a micromanager, while others viewed him as a competent manager who strived to provide pastors and priests with the resources needed to carry out their missions.

With Pope Benedict XVI at Yankee Stadium in April of 2008
Cardinal Egan with Pope Benedict XVI at Yankee Stadium in April of 2008

Regarding his relationship with the priests of the archdiocese, while Egan conceded to me that he was a micromanager and expected others to work hard and to pay attention to details, he also told me this: “There were a number of serious situations to be addressed when I came to the archdiocese as archbishop, and dealing with them inevitably entailed decisions that were not welcome by all. . . .Some found my approach too formal and demanding, and they may well have been right. Others told me that they felt that I was usually on target in my dealing with the faithful and especially with the clergy. It is my hope and prayer that the success or failure of my approach will be judged on the basis of results: ‘Did he leave things better than he found them?’ That, of course, will be decided by others over the years that lie ahead.”

Egan also expressed to me his concerns about a significant subset of priests who are just plain lazy. He thought they delegated too much to lay staff, didn’t get to know their parishioners’ concerns and problems, and spent too much time dining out, playing golf and goofing off.

Although Egan was the first archbishop of New York to retire instead of dying in office, after he stepped down he did not slow down. In addition to serving on various Vatican committees, he performed confirmations, filled in for Cardinal Dolan at various events and continued his fundraising activities. Since 2009, he raised over $40 million for inner city schools.

Shortly before Pope Benedict retired, Cardinal Dolan and Cardinal Egan met with the pontiff. In the course of the conversation, Dolan said to the pope, “Cardinal Egan is my best auxiliary bishop.” Egan told Benedict that he hoped to be of assistance however he could and as long as he could. Benedict replied, “Bravo, Eminenza, bravo.”

I can attest that Egan worked as along as he could. In February, we spent the afternoon together discussing recent events and the outcome of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family. He was appalled by the leaks, which he explained broke Vatican protocols. Dissenters, he said, “believe they are above the rules.” He also made it clear to me his opposition to Cardinal Kasper’s proposal that the rules be changed to allow divorced Catholics to receive Holy Communion and held to his position that he had expressed in a paper he delivered to St. John’s University in October 2014, that “the seriousness of Church deliberations of marital invalidity is in my judgment—and that of many others—questionable at best.” He hoped to attend this years Synod to support Cardinal Mueller and to defend traditional Church teaching on marriage.

When I returned from Rome on Saturday night I found in my stack of mail a letter from the cardinal dated March 4, the day before he died. In that correspondence, he had addressed a personal matter – something many other busy people might have ignored – I had raised with him six days earlier, and then went on to say, “Hopefully, all went well in Rome. You missed a lot of terrible weather here. Take care of yourself.”

May God take care of Edward Michael Egan, an extraordinarily effective, faithful, and devoted priest, whom I had the privilege to call a friend.