e-mail us
Egan to New York, pledges ‘loyalty’


Edward Egan, a canon lawyer with a reputation as a strict Vatican loyalist, will be the ninth archbishop of New York, succeeding Cardinal John O’Connor, who died May 3.

The appointment of Egan, 68, currently bishop of Bridgeport, Conn., was announced May 11. The move had been widely expected since members of Egan’s family told reporters that he had broken the news to them.

In a news conference, Egan thanked John Paul and pledged his “obedience and loyalty” to the pope.

Media reports suggested that Egan was not O’Connor’s choice to step into New York’s top job, and that John Paul, in order to pick Egan, had rejected the terna, or list of three candidates, put together by a committee of American bishops and submitted by the nuncio.

Egan will almost certainly be made a cardinal in the next consistory, a gathering of cardinals during which the pope creates new members, which is expected later this year.

A native of Chicago and former secretary to Cardinal John Cody, Egan served from 1972 to 1985 as a judge on the Roman Rota, the church’s central appellate court responsible primarily for annulment cases. He was the youngest member of a six-person team who advised John Paul on final revisions of the new Code of Canon Law in 1983.

In 1985, the pope made Egan an auxiliary bishop. In a break with precedent, he assigned Egan not to his home archdiocese in Chicago but to New York. O’Connor said at the time that he did not know Egan, and the selection put him in an awkward position since he had promised that his next auxiliary would be a New Yorker. O’Connor welcomed Egan, however, in accord with the pope’s wishes.

In 1988 Egan became the bishop of Bridgeport, where he launched a program of closings and mergers of parishes and schools, unpopular decisions that O’Connor had largely deferred in New York. He also raised more than $43 million to support education programs, members of religious communities and homes for retired clergy.

Egan has a reputation as an effective recruiter for the priesthood. He has 30 men currently on the path to ordination, and Bridgeport already ranks first among 34 dioceses in the Northeast in its ratio of priests to the Catholic population.

The Bridgeport diocese has faced more than two-dozen lawsuits in recent years concerning alleged pedophilia by priests, most dealing with conduct that occurred before Egan became bishop. In response to one such claim, Egan pioneered a novel theory to insulate the diocese from liability, arguing that priests are self-employed.

Egan described himself as self-employed, noting that his paycheck from the diocese does not withhold income tax -- meaning he is treated legally not as an employee but as a contractor.

A jury in the case returned a $1 million verdict against the diocese. It was later set aside on the basis of faulty instructions from the judge concerning the statute of limitations and is expected to be tried again.

Egan is known as a conservative on many issues, both within the church and in secular political culture. In 1996, Egan endorsed the Catholic Alliance, an affiliate of Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition. Egan’s support came after the Catholic Alliance reorganized itself under an all-Catholic board, signaling a degree of independence from its parent organization.

In July 1997, Egan joined a handful of other American bishops, including O’Connor, Charles Chaput of Denver, John Keating of Arlington, Va., and John Meyers of Peoria, Ill., in signing a statement lamenting the decline of religion in public life circulated by Focus on the Family, another conservative Christian group. It bore the signatures of Ralph Reed, former director of the Christian Coalition, and Gary Bauer, a former Republican presidential candidate favored by the religious right.

During a 1987 hearing on sex education in city schools in New York, Egan blasted what he called a “twisted” approach favored by the board of education, which allowed school-affiliated health clinics to write prescriptions for contraceptives with parental consent.

“Try decency, try chastity, try Western civilization,” he said, instead of waiting for AIDS “to put an end to us all.”

On ecclesial matters, Egan is likely to take a strict approach. In 1986, he delivered the keynote address at the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, a group formed as an alternative to organizations such as the Catholic Theological Society of America, viewed by critics as too liberal. Egan told the group that the post-Vatican II push for a distinctly American Catholic church was abating, while interest in tradition was growing.

“There is a lot that is beginning to go right -- and by right, I mean correct,” he joked.

In 1997, Egan ordered a retreat house in Bridgeport to cancel a presentation by Salvatoran Fr. Robert Nugent and School Sister of Notre Dame Jeannine Gramick for parents of gay and lesbian children. Egan said that since the two were under Vatican investigation the retreat would be “inappropriate.”

In 1999, Nugent and Gramick were banned from pastoral work with homosexuals by Rome.

A May 10 article in The New York Times, citing a church official who had been briefed on the selection process by O’Connor, said that last fall a committee of American bishops organized a search for O’Connor’s replacement. They consulted clergy and laity about issues and candidates.

The three names submitted to John Paul through the papal nuncio, according to the Times account, were Archbishop Justin Rigali of St. Louis, Archbishop Edward O’Brien of the military archdiocese, and Bishop Henry Mansell of Buffalo. The Times indicated that Mansell had been O’Connor’s candidate.

In the end, however, John Paul went with Egan, a man he has seemingly been grooming for leadership.

Sources told the Times that the Vatican had been ready to name Egan in March, but as O’Connor’s health went into rapid decline the decision was made to hold off until after his death.

Egan is fluent in Latin, French and Italian, and is said to be an accomplished pianist.

Wire services contributed to this report.

National Catholic Reporter, May 19, 2000