Cardinal Edward M. Egan, a stern defender of Roman Catholic orthodoxy who presided over the Archdiocese of New York for nine years in an era of troubled finances, changing demographics and an aging, dwindling priesthood shaken by sexual-abuse scandals, died on Thursday in Manhattan. He was 82.
Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said the cause was cardiac arrest.
Cardinal Egan’s successor, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, said in a statement that Cardinal Egan “had a peaceful death, passing away right after lunch” in his home at the Chapel of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. He was pronounced dead at NYU Langone Medical Center.
As archbishop of New York from 2000 to 2009 — spiritual head of a realm of 2.7 million parishioners, an archipelago of 368 parishes and a majestic seat at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan — Cardinal Egan was one of America’s most visible Catholic leaders, invoking prayers for justice when terrorists struck on Sept. 11, 2001, and escorting Pope Benedict XVI on his historic visit to the city in April 2008.
A year later, the pope appointed Cardinal Dolan, who was the archbishop of Milwaukee at the time, to replace Cardinal Egan, concluding a tenure that had not been popular with many Catholics but that had come to grips with hard decisions on church finances and walked the line of church doctrine against winds of change.
A month before retiring, however, Cardinal Egan seemed to soften his stance on the centuries-old requirement of priestly celibacy by suggesting that the church would someday have to consider allowing priests to marry — a topic that has been much discussed since the election of Pope Francis.
“It’s a perfectly legitimate discussion,” Cardinal Egan said on an Albany radio station, 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.”
Along with his elevation to the College of Cardinals in 2001, his appointment by Pope John Paul II to lead the Archdiocese of New York — to many the most prominent Catholic pulpit in the nation — crowned a career of more than five decades in his church. Nearly half of it was spent in Rome as a student, teacher, canon lawyer and ecclesiastical judge, and much of the rest in the senior ranks of the church in America.
Aside from a year as a young priest in a Chicago cathedral, he had always been on an executive track. He was secretary to Cardinal Albert G. Meyer of Chicago in the 1950s; a protégé of Cardinal John Patrick Cody of Chicago in the 1960s; after his extended sojourns in Rome, an auxiliary bishop in New York; and for 12 years the bishop of Bridgeport, Conn., where he was groomed for the New York post.
From a childhood racked by polio to golden years of study in Rome, from struggles over failing schools and pedophile priests to his triumphal investiture at St. Patrick’s, Cardinal Egan climbed to success with an iron will, unswerving fidelity to Catholic dogmas and extraordinary skills as an organizer, a fund-raiser and an administrator. Admirers compared him to a Fortune 500 C.E.O.
He was strikingly unlike his predecessor as archbishop, Cardinal John J. O’Connor, a gregarious, earthy and blunt man who enjoyed repartee at political dinners and the hullabaloo of St. Patrick’s Day parades, disliked budget details and was loath to close even underused schools and churches.
Cardinal Egan was distant, cautious and measured, fluent in Italian, French, Spanish and Latin, a player of classical piano who read physics, did not hobnob with politicians more than necessary and could make tough, unpopular decisions.
His tenure in New York had mixed reviews. His priority was to restore financial stability to the deficit-ridden archdiocese, and he did it by closing or merging parishes and schools and by raising millions from corporations and wealthy laymen. But he also drew bitter complaints from affected parishioners and priests. He tried to recruit more priests, but with little success.
And as the sexual-abuse scandal widened, he tried to protect the church from liability. In Bridgeport, he was accused of withholding information about accused priests and moving some from parish to parish. In New York, he gave prosecutors files on accused priests, but critics said he was slow and reluctant to act.
Some parishioners and priests, many hurt by his decisions, called him chilly and imperious. In his zeal to close budget gaps, forestall lawsuits or enforce Vatican codas, they said, he lacked a pastoral touch. Critics said he brooked little dissent, once even calling the police to oust protesters from a church.
His fidelity to church teachings led to conflicts with national leaders and even church institutions. He scolded former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York for receiving communion during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to New York in 2008 because Mr. Giuliani supported abortion rights, and he later rebuked Fordham University Law School for giving an award to another abortion-rights supporter, Justice Stephen G. Breyer of the United States Supreme Court.
In 2004, Cardinal Egan declined to invite the presidential candidates to the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner, a charity event in New York, because the Democratic nominee, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, a Catholic, supported abortion rights.
Cardinal Egan distrusted the news media and rarely gave interviews. But he reached out to constituents, visiting parishes, schools, hospitals, nursing homes, day care centers and other institutions. He wrote columns for Catholic publications, hosted a weekly satellite radio program on church affairs, and delivered stentorian lessons from the pulpit on abortion, contraception, homosexuality, priestly celibacy and other matters. (It was unclear whether his last remarks on priestly celibacy represented a crack in discipline or a parting gift to reformers; in any case, they renewed a spirited debate on an issue central to a dwindling priesthood.)
And he believed he accomplished what he had set out to do. “When I came here, I told everyone what I would do, and quite frankly I did it,” the cardinal said in a 2007 interview with The New York Times. “I had to deal with the sex scandal, and I did. I had to realign, and I did. I wanted peace in my diocese, and it’s peaceful.”
He smiled — it was more flint than mirth — and added, “It’s all been a colossal success.”
Path to the Priesthood
Edward Michael Egan was born in Oak Park, Ill., a Chicago suburb, on April 2, 1932, the third of four children of Thomas Egan, a sales manager, and Genevieve Costello Egan, a former teacher. His sister and two brothers have all died.
In 1943, when he was 11, Edward contracted polio, which was epidemic in Chicago. He missed two years at St. Giles, a Catholic school, but still graduated at the top of his class. His family was devoutly Catholic, and he prayed during his illness at an altar set up on his dresser. He also decided early on a priestly vocation.
He graduated in 1951 from Archbishop Quigley Preparatory Seminary in Chicago, earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Ill., and then completed four years of theological studies at Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, where he was ordained on Dec. 15, 1957.
Assigned to Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago, he taught conversion classes and was a hospital chaplain. But he soon became private secretary to Cardinal Meyer, who abolished racial segregation in Catholic institutions in Chicago, and was named assistant chancellor of the archdiocese. He was back in Rome from 1960 to 1964, earning a doctorate in canon law at Pontifical Gregorian.
From 1964 to 1971, he was in Chicago. He was Cardinal Cody’s secretary and later co-chancellor of the archdiocese, working on interfaith relations and social concerns. In 1970 and 1971, he was the pastor of St. Gregory the Great in Chicago — the only time in his career when he was a parish priest, a time he cherished, an aide said. From 1971 to 1985, he returned to Rome, first as a law professor and later as a judge of the Sacred Roman Rota, part of the Vatican’s court system, dealing with marriage annulments and other issues. He was one of six lawyers who reviewed John Paul II’s Code of Canon Law, some 1,750 doctrines governing the church, which was promulgated in 1983.
In 1985, he was named auxiliary bishop of New York and vicar of education for the archdiocese under Cardinal O’Connor. The two had a frosty relationship. Bishop Egan drafted curriculum guidelines and won respect for his work on Catholic schools, but ruffled feathers by speaking out on public schools. At a City Council hearing on contraceptives for high school students, he criticized the city’s sex education program and urged lessons in abstinence. “Try decency,” he said. “Try chastity. Try Western civilization.”
In 1988, he was named bishop of Bridgeport, a diocese with a diverse population of 360,000 Catholics, masses in 20 languages and a reach that encompassed blighted urban streets, working-class neighborhoods and affluent suburbs. The diocese was deep in debt, many Catholics had left the poorer parts of the city, and churches and schools were coping with dwindling resources. Over the next 12 years, the bishop closed or merged schools, raised $45 million and stabilized the diocese.
But he also drew criticism as one of two American bishops who endorsed the Catholic Alliance, a right-wing group created by Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed to attract Catholics to the Christian Coalition, their political lobby. He was also criticized for opposing efforts to minister to gays and lesbians.
Confronting a Crisis
Bishop Egan condemned sexual abuse by clergymen, but refused to divulge any cases and let priests who had undergone counseling continue to work. The bishop was accused in many lawsuits of shuffling accused priests from one parish to another. In testimony in 1997 that strained credulity, he argued that the diocese was not liable because priests were independent contractors. “Every priest is self-employed,” he contended.
In depositions given in 1997 and 1999 — testimony sealed by courts at the behest of the church for more than a decade but disclosed in 2009 as a result of lawsuits by The Times and other newspapers — Bishop Egan mounted a combative defense of his policies for handling complaints of sexual abuse by priests that dated from the 1960s to the mid-’80s, long before his arrival in Bridgeport.
Sparring with plaintiffs’ lawyers in often heated exchanges, he sought to minimize the number and seriousness of the accusations, and said he believed that most of the accused priests were innocent. But he acknowledged that his diocese had rarely delved into abuse complaints by seeking out witnesses or telling accusers about other complaints against the same priests.
A week after Cardinal O’Connor died, on May 3, 2000, the Vatican announced that Bishop Egan had been chosen as the ninth archbishop of New York. Many Catholics wondered whether a man who had spent 22 of his 43 years as a priest in Rome might be out of touch with the church in America. But it soon became clear that he was firmly in charge.
In his first six months, he surveyed churches, schools, hospitals and other institutions in the archdiocese, which encompassed the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island in New York City, and seven counties to the north: Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, Sullivan, Ulster and Westchester. He later closed 23 schools and 10 churches and merged 11 parishes with others while creating five new parishes to accord with population shifts.
He also consolidated seminary facilities, closed offices and raised millions from corporate and wealthy donors. By his own account, he eliminated a $25 million deficit in a $70 million operating budget within a year and began retiring $48 million in long-term debt. The cardinal discussed the finances with church officials and even with reporters, but it was not possible to confirm the figures because he had never opened the books.
The archdiocese said in a statement on Thursday that under Cardinal Egan “the number of registered parishioners increased by 204,000, the budget of Catholic Charities more than doubled, enrollment of Catholic elementary and secondary schools grew by 15,400, the archdiocesan newspaper became the largest in the nation and the archdiocese and its various agencies were made debt-free.”
Cardinal Egan also established a home for retired priests in the Riverdale section of the Bronx and organized programs to recruit priests. But in 2008 only six were ordained and in 2009 only three were added in the archdiocese, where the number of active priests had declined to 470 from nearly 600 at the turn of the century, and the average age of priests was over 60. The decline in the number of priests has continued.
However, the most contentious issue of the cardinal’s tenure was the scandal of priests accused of molesting children. Like bishops across the nation, he set up a lay review board to evaluate accusations and make recommendations. The cardinal suspended more than a dozen priests and gave their files to prosecutors, who generally found the cases too old to be prosecuted.
The archdiocese made no public disclosures, infuriating abuse victims and their advocates, who said the cardinal was protecting abusers. Scores of priests also accused him of failing to support accused colleagues. The contretemps underscored a problem faced by many church leaders who were trying to address the scandal while protecting priests’ privacy.
Apology and a Retraction
In 2002, amid a public outcry over the sexual-abuse scandal, Cardinal Egan seemed to step back from his hard-line approach, offering an apology about the church’s handling of cases in New York and Bridgeport.
“It is clear that today we have a much better understanding of this problem,” he wrote in a letter read at Masses. “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, the Cardinal, in retirement, took back his apology in an interview published online by Connecticut magazine in February 2012. “I never should have said that, and I don’t think we did anything wrong,” he was quoted as saying.
In other comments, some seemingly at odds with the facts, the cardinal said the church had no obligation to report sexual-abuse accusations to the authorities, even though a law on the books since the 1970s dictates otherwise. He also described the Bridgeport diocese’s handling of sexual-abuse cases as “incredibly good,” and contended that throughout his tenure in Bridgeport and New York, “I never had one of these sex-abuse cases.”
During Bishop Egan’s tenure in Bridgeport, from 1988 to 2000, dozens of people came forward with claims of sexual abuse by priests, and many complaints were filed with the authorities during his time in New York.
Victims in abuse cases and their lawyers responded to the cardinal’s comments with disbelief and denunciation, accusing him of opening old wounds. But Archbishop Dolan, soon to become a cardinal himself, declined to comment, except to say that Cardinal Egan had always “responded appropriately and with rigor” to cases of sexual abuse.
In 2007, Cardinal Egan initiated a $177 million restoration and rehabilitation project at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, an edifice whose foundations were laid before the Civil War and whose spires were completed in 1888. The last full-scale renovation took place in the 1940s. Work on the present restoration began in 2012 and is expected to be completed by 2016.
It was also in 2007 that he turned 75 and submitted to the pope his resignation as archbishop, in accordance with church law. It had not been accepted a year later when Pope Benedict visited New York, where the cardinal escorted him to ground zero and helped him celebrate Mass at Yankee Stadium.
But it was accepted in 2009 with the investiture of Archbishop Dolan. Cardinal Egan remained in New York in retirement, occasionally filling in for Cardinal Dolan at official events. Mr. Zwilling, the archdiocese spokesman, said Cardinal Egan was the first archbishop in the 200-year history of the archdiocese to retire; all the others died in office.
In retrospect, admirers said, his finest hour perhaps came in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. As the nation seethed with anger, the cardinal urged levelheaded caution. “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.”