New York's New Archbishop: A Winning Papal P.R. Move

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Gary C. Klein / The Sheboygan Press / AP

Milwaukee Diocese Archbishop Timothy Dolan

In a month of bad public relations for the Vatican, the opportunity to name a replacement for the retiring and less-than-media-friendly Cardinal Edward Egan, 76, Archbishop of New York, was a godsend. The man announced on Monday to lead the archdiocese arrives well equipped for the job. Timothy Dolan, 59, who has been in charge of the Milwaukee Archdiocese since 2002, has long been considered among the most likable and loquacious senior American prelates. In the late 1990s, while serving as rector of the Pontifical North American College, the largest English-speaking seminary in Rome, he was a major man about town and go-to guy for U.S. journalists covering the Vatican, at ease sharing a beer or providing simple words to explain complicated Church doctrine.

In Milwaukee, Archbishop Dolan got generally good marks in a difficult situation. His predecessor, Archbishop Rembert Weakland, was forced out after it was revealed that the archdiocese had paid a $450,000 settlement to a man who claimed that Weakland tried to sexually assault him. Weakland admitted an "inappropriate relationship" but denied abuse. Soon after, Dolan had to parry a mini-revolt among some of Milwaukee's priests, who signed a petition saying celibacy should be optional in the future. Although he was firm in upholding orthodoxy, in this and other cases, Dolan tended to respond without rancor or imperiousness.

"His personality will carry New York," predicts a Rome-based priest who attended Pontifical North American College during Dolan's stint there. This priest says he always knew when Dolan was about to appear by the smell of cigar smoke that arrived first. "New Yorkers will come to be enchanted by this man. He's just so big-hearted, and has a personality that fills up whatever room he enters."

The influential New York Archdiocese, which is responsible for some 2.5 million Catholics, includes 405 parishes extending from the boroughs of Manhattan, Staten Island and the Bronx to several southern counties in the Empire State. It has been struggling in recent years because of financial troubles, shrinking parochial school attendees and the lingering fallout of the sex-abuse crisis.

Cardinal Egan, who served for nine years, was considered something of a flop on the New York stage, criticized for both heavy-handed management and a noticeably low quotient of charisma. Potentially the most influential religious figure in New York when 9/11 struck, Egan left no real mark during those trying days in the aftermath of the attack, instead spending several weeks in Rome for an unrelated meeting with members of the Catholic hierarchy. In Egan's defense, he had huge shoes to fill, following the larger-than-life figure of Cardinal John O'Connor, who had developed a close rapport with Pope John Paul II.

Dolan, a St. Louis, Mo., native, is virtually guaranteed to rise to the rank of Cardinal in the next consistory — a formal meeting of the College of Cardinals — at the Vatican. Insiders expect that his first move will be to forge a more direct link not only with New York parishioners but with priests, who privately were among Egan's harshest critics. Still, because it involves New York City, the job is necessarily more than just simple parish work, ideally serving as something of a roving ambassador for American Catholicism and a bridge to every walk of life that exists in America's largest metropolis. For progressive Catholic New Yorkers, however, there should be no illusions that Dolan's gregariousness will bring a looser line on such issues as abortion and gay marriage.

One senior Vatican official said the appointment was a logical choice. "He appears well-suited for New York," the official says of Dolan. "And he is well-liked here. He's always done what has been asked of him." Such obedience to Rome has served Dolan well. Now he's about to find out what it's like to have millions of New Yorkers asking for things too.

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