The sudden death of Cardinal Edward Egan, 82, the Archbishop of New York for nine years (2000-2009), prompted sadness for his passing and appreciation for his multifaceted career.
He was appointed by Pope John Paul II to succeed the popular John Cardinal O’Connor as Archbishop of New York at the Pope’s express desire (Egan’s name had not been one of the three forwarded to the Pope as recommendations of the local Church).
A canon lawyer with a doctorate from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, the cardinal had worked closely with John Paul II on his extensive revision of the Code of Canon Law, promulgated in 1983.
The editor of the Boston Globe’s Catholic website Crux, John Allen, called Egan “a vintage John Paul II bishop” who “shared much of his vision, which was a ferocious commitment to traditional Catholic teaching and discipline, but also great creativity about how that’s applied.”
Egan had a more reserved personality than his predecessor Cardinal O’Connor, but when the 9/11 attacks took place early in his tenure, he displayed a warmth and compassion that earned wide acclaim across the suffering city. After Mayor Rudolph Giuliani called him that day, he spent the rest of it anointing the dead and distributing rosaries to those searching for survivors. He celebrated funeral Masses for the victims, sometimes three a day. The disbelief of the city — and the nation — quickly turned to anger, but Cardinal Egan urged level-headed caution and self-control: “I am sure,” he said, “that we will seek justice in this tragedy as citizens of a nation under God, in which hatred and desires for revenge must never have a part.”
He was subsequently criticized by some for later leaving New York City, still reeling from the attacks, to attend a synod of bishops in Rome called by the Pope. Cardinal Egan said that he had repeatedly asked for permission to remain in his diocese, but the Pope had told Egan, who was to work as the Pope’s aide, that he was needed in Rome, and so he obeyed. Egan’s loyalty to the city was called into question in the pages of local media, which, in a 2011 Associated Press interview, Egan called “the worst thing that ever happened to me in my life.”
Egan was an accomplished organizer and fundraiser, and his administrative skills helped rebuild and stabilize the financially-strapped archdiocese, erasing the $25 budget deficit he inherited, and moving to retire $48 million in long-term debt, within two years of assuming office. He made decisions that were often unpopular—among them, the closing of 23 schools and 10 churches, along with the merger of 11 others—and in doing so, he drew criticism from those directly affected by his budget cuts and realignments. He was criticized for lacking a pastoral side, though he bristled at suggestions that he was more a CEO than a shepherd, telling the New York Times in 2001, “I am about, first and foremost, serving 413 communities of faith.”
Yet, although he was often described as aloof or distant in public, in private he could be attentive and kind. He personally visited countless Catholic institutions, particularly hospitals, nursing homes, and hospices, and ensured those living in them received proper care and attention.
And he excelled at supporting the charitable works of the Church, devoting a great deal of attention to raising funds for Catholic Charities, the official charitable arm of the diocese, and almost doubling its budget.
A gifted speaker and highly intelligent man, he could explain Catholic doctrine as well as anyone, and on issues where it was easy to go slack in a secularized culture—for example, on contraception, abortion, marriage and human sexuality—Egan upheld perennial Catholic teachings.
In fact, he was outspoken in defending those teachings publicly, and was not afraid to criticize popular Catholics whose example he deemed problematic. He scolded Mayor Giuliani, a Catholic, for receiving Holy Communion during Pope Benedict’s 2008 visit to New York, despite his public support for abortion. And he rebuked Catholic Fordham University Law School for giving an award to another pro-abortion figure, Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer.
Even as an auxiliary bishop of New York and vicar of education under Cardinal O’Connor, he was willing to ruffle feathers, criticizing the city’s sex education program and its promotion of contraception at a school board meeting. “Try decency,” he said. “Try chastity. Try Western civilization.”
He also reformed his seminaries, and helped develop many outstanding priests. And according to a statement of the Archdiocese of New York, during Cardinal Egan’s tenure, the number of registered parishioners increased by 204,000, and enrollment at Catholic elementary and secondary schools grew by 15,400.
Like many bishops of his era, however, he dealt with the abuse crisis slowly and inadequately, and did not initially recognize the radical depths of evil involved.
He acknowledged that in his previous assignment as bishop of Bridgeport, CT, he had failed to look deeply into reported cases of abuse, often reassigning accused clerics, though he also maintained his belief that a majority of accusations were in fact unfounded.
In New York, he set up a lay review board to evaluate accusations and make recommendations. The cardinal suspended more than a dozen priests, but prosecutors generally found the accusations to be too old to prosecute.
But the archdiocese made no public disclosures, and there was some outcry at the Cardinal’s actions ultimately protecting abusers. Some priests also accused him of failing to support accused colleagues. It was a problem repeated in dioceses all over the country: how to address the scandal without compromising the privacy—and reputation—of priests who might have been unjustly accused.
The victims are still suffering from such failures, though the Cardinal and his fellow bishops eventually won back a measure of credibility by cooperating with prosecutors and instituting a strict zero-tolerance program for abusive priests.
In 2002, in a letter to parishioners, Cardinal Egan wrote an apology for the archdiocese’s handling of sex abuse cases. “It is clear that today we have a much better understanding of this problem,” he said. “If in hindsight we also discover that mistakes may have been made as regards prompt removal of priests and assistance to victims, I am deeply sorry.”
A decade later, in an interview with Connecticut magazine in February 2012, he changed his mind: “I never should have said that, and I don’t think we did anything wrong,” he was quoted as saying.
A month before retiring, Cardinal Egan surprised many by suggesting the Church might want to reconsider its requirement for priestly celibacy—which is a discipline, not a doctrine, and thus subject to change—-revealing an openness many thought him incapable of.
“It’s a perfectly legitimate discussion,” Cardinal Egan said on an Albany radio station in 2009, adding: “I think it has to be looked at. And I am not so sure it wouldn’t be a good idea to decide on the basis of geography and culture, not to make an across-the-board determination.” (Pope Francis apparently agrees, having recently granted the first limited permission for married priests in the West among the diaspora of Eastern-rite Catholic Churches, in accord with their own unbroken tradition.)
A good man with a generous heart, Cardinal Egan capably led the archdiocese through troubled times while remaining a steadfast apologist for the truths of the Faith and public morality. If his errors and imperfections must not be forgotten, neither should his virtues and accomplishments—ones that left the Archdiocese of New York a more robust seat of Catholicism.