Th Vatican Thursday officially announced that Bishop Edward M. Egan, 68, who has led the Bridgeport diocese since 1988, would succeed Cardinal John O'Connor as the spiritual leader of New York's 2.4 million Catholics. The appointment had been widely predicted.
Following O'Connor's death last week, Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Newark, N.J., called Egan a strong administrator who has done good things in Bridgeport, where he leads 367,000 Catholics in 88 parishes.
"He'll do a good job," added Bishop Patrick Ahern of New York's Church of St. Thomas More, who knows Egan. "He's a strong man, a smart man. He's very able."
Egan, who was born in Oak Park, Ill., was ordained in Rome in 1957. He spent 22 years there as a professor of canon law at the Gregorian University and as a judge in the Sacred Roman Rota, a church tribunal. He also served as secretary to His Eminence, Cardinal John Cody, in Chicago, and later as the co-chancellor of the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Linda Pieczynski, a spokeswoman for Call to Action, a Chicago-based Catholic church reform group, called Egan conservative, legalistic--yet "very personable."
In 1985, O'Connor appointed Egan auxiliary bishop and vicar for education for the Archdiocese of New York after receiving a personal request from Pope John Paul II.
Nora Murphy, a spokeswoman for schools of the New York archdiocese, said she was impressed by Egan's commitment to Catholic education during his three-year tenure.
"He made that quite clear to us--that he wanted strong Catholic schools, quality schools, that we were here to serve them and to help them grow," Murphy said.
His work there ended when the pope appointed him to head the Connecticut diocese, which includes the poor city of Bridgeport as well as the wealthy suburbs of Greenwich, New Canaan, and Darien. At Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, where Egan sits on the board of directors, he is widely admired.
Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, executive director of the university's Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding, called Egan a strong leader who has reached out to diverse populations.
"I think...he'll do well in New York because I think he understands the need to relate to non-Catholics also," Ehrenkranz said. "New York is certainly a community that is diversified and has a large Jewish population, and he has good experience here."
In 1997, Egan stirred controversy when he was called as a witness by lawyers for a man who claimed he was sexually assaulted by a Stamford priest during the 1960s when he was an altar boy.
Egan, testifying by videotape, insisted that priests are independent contractors who work for individual parishes, not the diocese.
Egan, in fact, has had to defend the diocese against more than two dozen lawsuits alleging that priests molested children from the 1960s through the early 1990s. All but one lawsuit focuses on events that allegedly took place before Egan became bishop, but he has faced embarrassing questions about whether abuse was covered up.
"He has never offered counseling or any type of apology for the horrific events that went on with Bridgeport diocesan priests," said Cindy Robinson, a Bridgeport attorney who represents the plaintiffs.
Tom Drohan, a spokesman for Egan, said the bishop has repeatedly condemned sexual abuse by priests.
"Bishop Egan has always been quick to address allegations related to sexual molestation. There is no example in the past when that hasn't been true," Drohan said.
Egan, however, is best known for regionalizing the Catholic school system in the Bridgeport diocese. Instead of each parish bearing the costs of its schools, Egan set up a system so that the costs of all the schools were shared by the diocese to ease the financial burden of poorer parishes. He also closed rundown schools and those with low attendance.
"He saw clearly that we had to change from a parochial system to a regional system," said Armand Fabbri, superintendent of schools for the diocese. "We were then able to put the schools on a sound financial footing...now we are on the threshold of expansion."
Egan is also a tireless fund-raiser. In 1991, he established the Inner-City Foundation for Charity and Education, which pays for food, housing, education, and medical-care programs for the needy. Under Egan's direction, the diocese's "Faith in the Future" campaign has raised more than $43 million for schools, seminary education, support for retired clergy, and religious education programs.
Egan has encouraged young men to join the priesthood. In 1989, he established the Saint John Fisher Seminary Residence in Trumbull. Since then, 52 priests have been ordained for the diocese.
At Mass at Bridgeport's St. Augustine Cathedral on Wednesday, before the official announcement of his appointment, parishioners wished Egan well in New York.
"He's done quite a bit for our parish here. He's given his all for us," said Juan Hernandez, who gave Egan a thumbs up sign as Egan shook hands with parishioners. "New York is a big city. A lot more help is needed over there."