New York's Archbishop Sets Tone

The Hartford Courant

New Yorkers can speculate as much as they like about why Pope John Paul II picked a doctrinal conservative with close ties to the Vatican to replace John Cardinal O'Connor as archbishop of New York.

One bonus for the Vatican was abundantly clear, however, during the farewell interview O'Connor's successor, Bishop Edward Michael Egan of Bridgeport, conducted with the Connecticut press Monday. Egan is one camera-ready cleric whose natural gift for gab is likely to go down well in the media capital of the world.

Glib, robust, remarkably youthful for his 68 years, Egan steadfastly remained "on message" before a bank of TV cameras, waxing loquacious on the points he knew were favorable for his image and ignoring the rest. This is a man who understands that giving good sound bite means delivering a point with a Reaganesque touch of humor.

"Bishop Egan," asked an earnest television reporter, "There's been some speculation that you would be quickly eligible to be elevated to cardinal"

"I suggest that you contact a man by the name of Karol Wojtyla, who is also known as Pope John Paul II," Egan parried. "As far as I know, he is the only one who can answer your question. And if you succeed in getting an answer, I hope you give me a call."

As the room erupted in laughter, Egan smiled broadly and winked, having delivered a subtle but vital point: Despite being the man of the hour, he would retain his humility and cheerfully submit to the authority of Rome.

Egan, who will be installed as New York's archbishop on Monday, appeared anxious to create as strong a first impression as possible while he is still enjoying his honeymoon period with the press. Tossed an easy softball by a reporter -- asked what was his strongest achievement in Bridgeport that he could carry to New York -- Egan adroitly marshalled a long list of statistics on how he has increased vocations to the priesthood. Since his arrival in Bridgeport 12 years ago, Egan has presided over the ordinations of almost 40 priests, the strongest record among any Northeast diocese, even surpassing that of the much larger archdiocese of New York.

But when asked a related question -- about more than 20 pending suits alleging sexual abuse of parishioners by Bridgeport Diocese priests -- Egan's cheery eloquence disappeared and he stared impassively at the reporter.

"No comment."

A second reporter, aggressively following up, wanted to know how the bishop felt about being characterized as "insensitive" to the plight of people alleging sexual abuse by priests.

"No comment."

Press aides to the bishop, including those who had traveled up from the archdiocese of New York, were visibly pleased. No comment, no sound bite and -- on television, at least -- the issue goes away.

"Everybody keeps saying this guy Egan has no experience with the tough media of New York," said one of the Bridgeport aides. "Well, bunk. He knows the ropes."

The unresolved charges over sexual abuse by Brigeport Diocese priests remain a stain on Egan's record in Connecticut. He was also controversial for a number of consolidations of parishes and schools, an issue that is sure to follow him to the much more complex and financially troubled archdiocese of New York. One of Egan's last acts as Bishop of Bridgeport was acting on a particularly controversial parish consolidation in Stamford.

There, the largely Hispanic parish of Our Lady of Montserrat Church spent more than three years battling Egan over expansion plans, raising $500,000 to build a new church for the rapidly growing congregation. As one of his last acts as Bishop of Bridgeport, Egan finally ordered that the congregation at Our Lady of Montserrat be merged with St. Benedict's Church, a formerly Slovak but underutilized sanctuary a short drive away. Many parishioners have accused the bishop of reneging on an earlier deal to allow Our Lady of Montserrat to build a new church.

"Five minutes before coming over here I telephoned St. Benedict's/Our Lady of Montserrat parish," Egan said. "We had seven Masses on Sunday, all packed. OK. The young lady there said to me, `Bishop, you'd be delighted. It was the most spirit-filled occasion I have ever attended.' "

The sprawling archdiocese of New York, with about 413 parishes and almost 400 schools, contains glaring contrasts of wealth and utilization, and it is a foregone conclusion that one of Egan's most pressing responsibilities will be consolidation and administrative reform. Under the intense glare of the New York media, there will be many St. Benedict's-Montserrats that leave more than a few unhappy parishioners.

But Bishop Egan, the prelate with a natural gift for media relations, doesn't intend to squander his honeymoon with the press on tough issues like that. He'll be spending the summer traveling the diocese and engaging mostly in camera-friendly events, securing his base with the faithful before he takes on the hard issues, in much the same way that Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton has spent almost a year on her "listening tour" of New York.

"I think the key project for me now will be to learn about the archdiocese," Egan said. "I don't know what the situation is in the schools, about Catholic Charities, or with the priests and the religious. The truth of the matter is that all I can do is spend this summer listening to the people."

The truth of the matter, actually, is that Egan spent three years as an auxiliary bishop in New York before coming to Bridgeport, and he knows very well that he faces a bundle of problems wrestling America's most visible diocese into shape. But first, he'll be spending his time in the fishbowl making sure his media image is secured.

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