The Archbishop's Tale

Egan’s Bridgeport Record Offers Little Hope to Catholic Progressives 

By picking Edward Egan to head the Archdiocese of New York, the pope is continuing to move the Catholic Church to the right—even further right than the conservative John Cardinal O'Connor. The new archbishop also brings baggage from Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he is still a defendant and a witness in suits stemming from alleged sexual abuse of children by his priests.

The most visible pulpit in the U.S. has been given to a man active in a group seen as undermining the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the official association for all American bishops. After Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition established the Catholic Alliance in 1995, Egan was one of two bishops in 1996 to sign up to support its antichoice and antigay agenda. Now that the Alliance is an independent group speaking for traditional Catholics in the political arena, he is one of five bishops on its Bishops Advisory Board.

This infuriates bishops like Howard Hubbard of Albany, who in Christianity Today magazine called the creation of the Alliance "startling and offensive—another effort to split Catholics from their bishops." Right-wing Catholic laymen like Thomas Monahan, who made his fortune with Domino's Pizza, support the Alliance.

Linda Pieczynski of the progressive Catholic group Call to Action says that Egan sits on the Alliance's board with Lincoln, Nebraska's Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, who does not allow altar girls in his diocese and who excommunicated the state's entire Action membership, along with members of 11 other groups, including Planned Parenthood and the Masons.

With 20,000 members, Action supports women's ordination, optional celibacy for priests, more consultation with the laity, and fairer treatment of gays and lesbians.

Pieczynski says of Egan, "I would call him more 'restorationist'—wanting to restore the church to a time prior to Vatican II," the 1960s churchwide reform. "Now," she says, "all the power is consolidated in Rome," where Egan has most of his experience as a canon lawyer.

Egan had a stint in New York as O'Connor's vicar for education for almost four years, starting in 1985. Testifying before a City Council hearing in 1987 against the sex education program in public schools, Egan famously said, "Try decency, try chastity, try Western civilization" before AIDS "puts an end to us all!"

At his May 11 press conference, Egan said that he believes his views now qualify as "the majority position" and that putting "preservatives [his word for condoms] in the hands of children in state-supported schools is an enterprise that has little support left." In fact, the city's Board of Education never rescinded a 1991 policy mandating that condoms be made available in all high schools. Though parents may opt their children out of the program, fewer than 2 percent do.

Egan's record as bishop of Bridgeport does not offer much hope to progressives. Joseph Grabarz, the executive director of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union, tangled with him on many gay rights issues. In 1991, he says, "I was a Catholic, prochoice, openly gay state representative who lived two doors down from the cathedral, and it was not my impression that he was open or affirming. He was one of the dominant forces in the [Connecticut] Catholic Conference," the lobbying arm of the bishops in Hartford. "We stood opposite them day after day when they argued against even the legal rights of gays and lesbians to maintain their own families." At the press conference in New York, the Voice asked the archbishop if he would support the gay rights bill that has languished for 30 years in Albany. He said, "Stay tuned. We'll find out in a couple of months."

Grabarz is not optimistic. "This is the person that O'Connor didn't want because he was too conservative. This is Ratzinger," he says, referring to the doctrinaire Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the modern name for the Inquisition that burned heretics at the stake.

Egan conducted his own purging of sorts in Bridgeport in 1997. A retreat run by the Catholic Parents Network had been held in 1995 and 1996 for parents of gays and lesbians through the Franciscan sisters there. Egan's office received a complaint about the leader of the retreat, Reverend Robert Nugent, who was undergoing a lengthy investigation by the Vatican for not emphasizing the church's teaching that homosexuality is "evil" and "disordered" (even though he has not publicly disagreed with the teaching). When Egan ordered the retreat canceled, "I asked to meet with him," Nugent says, "but didn't receive an answer."

Ironically, Egan's banishment of the parents' group came just as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops was finalizing "Always Our Children," a directive advising parents of gay children to accept them.

While Egan keeps his incense dry on gay rights issues here, he has—to no one's surprise—been unequivocal about opposition to abortion and support for public funding of Catholic schools. Grabarz says that Egan "spoke on the steps of the state capitol after marching in full regalia with parishioners from the cathedral four blocks away and repudiated modern interpretation of the First Amendment in saying that it is the Catholic Church's right to receive voucher payments." At his press conference, Egan said "choice" is "a wonderful word," but he was referring to school vouchers, not a woman's right to reproductive freedom.

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