News & Politics

The Archbishop’s Tale


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.

Egan is 68 and must submit his retirement to the pope in just seven years. As he tries to make his mark, he may be slowed not so much by progressive forces in the church as by a sex abuse scandal in Bridgeport and the determination of the plaintiffs and an ultraconservative Catholic group to make him pay for it.

The bishop plays hardball in these cases, having gone so far as to plead in 1997 that he is “self-employed” and not responsible for his priests, who are also “self-employed.” Church law clearly states “priests can exercise their ministry only in dependence on the bishop.” Charles Bell, religion editor of the Daily News, wrote then that the defense “is raising a lot of eyebrows,” but he didn’t question Egan about it at the press conference. The diocese was found liable for close to $800,000 in that case and had the judgment vacated on a technicality, but settled for an undisclosed sum rather than face another trial.

The Bridgeport law firm Tremont and Sheldon represents 20 plaintiffs with abuse cases against diocesan priests, one of whom was alleged to have engaged in abuse from the time Egan became bishop in 1988. “He is the defendant in one case and a witness in every other case,” says attorney Jason Tremont, who notes that in some of the cases priests with records of molestation were transferred to new parishes without any word to the new pastor. Father Martin Federici is accused of incidents dating back to 1971, including one in 1983 where he allegedly abused a boy in a confessional. Yet he was still serving as late as 1993—under Egan—when he is alleged to have abused yet another boy.

At the time, Tremont wanted to share more details, but the diocese obtained a gag order. Tom Drohan, a spokesman for Egan, says that this was to protect “nonparty priests” named in the files. He says the law firm was on a “fishing expedition” that “violates individuals’ rights.”

Also on Egan’s case is Roman Catholic Faithful (RCF), a group “fed up with the abuse of authority” in the church that cites the Bridgeport lawsuits on its Web site ( Stephen Brady of RCF says, “In so many cases, bishops treat the victims of sexual abuse as the enemy—shun them and don’t act Christian at all.” He wants Egan to recognize that “the buck stops [with the bishop]” on abuse cases. “We’re tired of looking like fools to the Protestants,” he says.

Egan was successful in boosting vocations in Bridgeport, establishing a pre-seminary—where young men can explore their vocations—but one source says that he succeeded because “they’re not too picky” about whom they let in.

Egan bragged at his press conference that his business card has his name on one side and the address of the pre-seminary on the other. “I pass these out with gay abandon,” he said without a trace of irony.

A priest colleague of Egan’s is said to have started screaming when he heard that the bishop had been named to the New York post. “He is far worse [than other right-wing bishops] because he is intelligent and well-spoken,” he said, noting that Egan’s nickname at the seminary was “The Climber.” He has now climbed into the most visible position in the American church. How far he will go to promote the extreme agenda of the Catholic Alliance remains to be seen.

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