Gotham and Gomorrah: The Rise and Fall of the Catholic Church in New York City

Detailing the effects of 9/11 on Catholic New Yorkers, “A Test of Faith” will serve as the book’s prologue. The end of the chapter introduces a second crisis–an internal one–that would shake the faith of the city’s believers for the next 20 years: the scourge of sex abuse at the hands of clergy members.

Just four months after 10 Al Qaeda terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, The Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team published its investigation of sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston. Then, on March 17, 2002, allegations were published that New York’s Cardinal Edward Egan, had covered up abuse cases while serving as bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut. As this section’s ending suggests, mounting revelations of abuse and systematic cover-up would begin to unmake 170 years of accumulated Catholic wealth and power in New York City. Following this prologue, Chapter One, “The Greenhorns Take Gotham,” swings back to the 1840s, when the first major influx of Irish immigrants came to New York, bringing their Catholic faith with them.

PROLOGUE: “A Test of Faith”

In the mezzanine of the World Trade Center’s north tower, Father Mychal Judge, chaplain for the New York City Fire Department, was hunched over a dying firefighter, administering last rites. An hour and 14 minutes earlier, American Airlines Flight 11, hijacked by terrorists en route from Boston to Los Angeles, had ripped into the north side of the skyscraper now collapsing above them. Judge had removed his helmet in prayer, ensuring the fireman he would meet his end with Christ. Suddenly, the south tower blew in a storm of glass, dust and debris, flinging the 68-year-old Franciscan friar toward the escalators. The impact killed him, almost instantly.

Two firemen, an FDNY medical technical, a police lieutenant and a civilian used a chair to carry his crumpled body out of the wreckage. As the north tower crashed toward the ground behind them, they hustled the lifeless priest for four blocks to Barclay Street, laying him by the altar at Saint Peter’s Church. Father Donald Fussner, a 70-year-old pastor, covered Judge’s body with a white cloth and a stole, laying his helmet and chaplain’s badge on his chest. That afternoon, fellow Franciscan friars brought Judge’s corpse to West 31st Street, laying him in the firehouse he had lived across from and served for the past 15 years. His remains identified and wholly intact, Father Judge would become Victim 0001, the first death certificate processed in the collapse of the Twin Towers. In the days to come, Saint Peter’s Greek Revival chapel would serve as a FEMA command station, its altar cloths used as makeshift bandages for the wounded.

Martin Cottingham, a 32-year-old managing director at Bear Stearns, made his way on foot and by train from midtown Manhattan to Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn – home to his Irish-Catholic family since the 1930s. Over land and sea, debris had traveled five miles from the towers to Martin’s residential neighborhood, coating car windshields in concrete dust. At home, his wife Kathy sat watching the news while their two-month-old Brendan, just starting to recognize his parents’ faces, lay nearby in his baby bouncer. For the rest of the day, Martin’s uncle Gerard and two of his Bear Stearns colleagues, waiting to get home to New Jersey and Staten Island, stayed with them in Brooklyn.

That morning, Martin’s younger brother Christopher, an NYPD officer, arrived at the World Trade Center 20 minutes after the second crash. “I don’t think he surfaced,” Martin recalls, “until about 1 or 2 o’clock in the afternoon.” Later, Martin would learn that his brother, caked in ash, stood in the conference room two blocks from Ground Zero where, over the phone, Vice President Dick Cheney told Mayor Rudy Giuliani that F-15 fighter jets were on their way to Manhattan. One of Christopher’s colleagues died, and another was severely injured. Over the course of the decade that followed, images of people jumping 1,200 feet from the upper floors would replay in his nightmares.

Of the 343 firefighters who died that day, four had links to the Holy Name of Jesus, the church where the Cottingham family had taken communion and prayed since 1935. Firefighter Jimmy Riches of Engine Company 4, based a mile and a half from the World Trade Center, perished in the north tower. He would have turned 30 the following day. Jimmy’s father, Battalion Chief Jim Riches, would spend the next six months searching through rubble for his son’s remains. There was also Dennis O’Berg, 28, a firefighter from Ladder 105. Just six weeks out of the Fire Academy, O’Berg had left his job as an accountant to follow in the footsteps of his father, a lieutenant and three-decade veteran in the FDNY. His family would never find his remains – just his jacket, helmet and a single boot in the wreckage of the Marriott Hotel next to the destroyed Twin Towers.

Vincent Brunton, another Holy Namer, was captain of Dennis O’Berg’s Ladder. An Irish-American native of Windsor Terrace, Brunton had grown up on 12th Street and attended Holy Name Elementary School. By September 11, 2001, Brunton had been part of the FDNY for almost 22 years. In the summer of 1992, he had rescued a three-year-old girl and her parents from a burning building in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. He was also a part-time bartender at Farrell’s, the neighborhood’s watering hole for Irish and Italian Brooklynites since 1965. A “very popular guy,” he was “somebody everyone knew,” remembers Martin Cottingham. Brunton’s remains have never been recovered.

The Brunton family lived right by Farrell’s, two blocks from Holy Name and across the street from Peter Vega, a member of the ill-fated Ladder 118. The Puerto-Rican born Brooklynite, 36, joined the FDNY in 1995 after serving in Operation Desert Storm. Six foot three and nicknamed “Big Head,” Vega had proposed to his Knicks-obsessed wife Regan via jumbotron during a halftime show at Madison Square Garden. After the first plane struck the north tower, Vega called Regan before bounding across the Brooklyn Bridge and heading toward southwest Manhattan. “Babe, I don’t know if you’re watching the news,” he told her, “but there’s been an attack on the World Trade Center. Hon, it’s a big job. I’ve got to go. I love you.” He and the five other firefighters aboard Ladder 118’s engine were all lost. The couple had been married for five years, and had a one-year-old daughter named Ruby. For nearly three months, what remained of Vega would be missing somewhere among hundreds of thousands of tons of debris at Ground Zero.

Two days after the attacks, firefighters, police officers, first responders and volunteers began the search for survivors and scattered remains. Frank Silecchia, a 47-year-old ironworker between jobs, was moving through the steel and concrete remnants of Six World Trade Center when he came upon “a sign that God hadn’t deserted us”: a 17-foot tall cross of steel L-beams. Rising against the smoggy sky from a scooped out mound of rubble, it had fallen from the north tower into the eight-story building’s facade. Fused to the left side was a crumpled piece of melted metal, recalling the clothes Jesus left in his grave after resurrecting. Rescue and recovery workers came by on their breaks to pray and write names of the dead on the cross. Silecchia would remain at Ground Zero for the next nine months, helping move more than 3 and a half million pounds of wreckage from the site. He did not wear a mask, a decision that would lead to three operations for sinus and respiratory issues over the next 13 years.

His body not lost in the towers’ remnants, Father Mychal Judge received the funeral rites prescribed by Catholic canon law. The Saturday after the attacks, three thousand people, including former President Bill Clinton and Senator Hillary Clinton, poured into St. Francis of Assisi Church to bid farewell to the Brooklyn-born son of immigrants from County Leitrim, Ireland. ”It will take a very long time before any of us can even find the words to express what this cowardly, evil act meant and did to people we knew and loved, to our city and our country,” Senator Clinton told The New York Times that day. Delivering the homily, Father Michael Duffy told the congregation, “Mychal Judge was always my friend, and now he’s also my hero.” New York’s Cardinal Edward Egan, 69 years old and less than year and a half on the job, presided over Mass that morning in midtown Manhattan. After leaving his 12-year position as bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut, to become archbishop of New York, Egan was made cardinal in February 2001. In the months preceding September 11, the canon lawyer and classical pianist had been something of a mystery to the press. Suddenly, terror and grief thrust Egan, the spiritual leader of 2.4 million Catholic New Yorkers, into the national spotlight.

That Sunday, the chill of fall had not yet descended upon the city when Egan delivered Mass to 2,000 congregants inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral. A thousand more spilled out onto the East Midtown sidewalks, listening to the service on loudspeakers. Egan condemned the “faceless criminals” who had killed nearly 3,000 people five days earlier, reading a message from Pope John Paul II, exhorting worshipers “not to be conquered by evil, but to conquer evil with good.” New York Times reporter James Barron noted the cathedral’s “motley crowd,” ranging from New Yorkers “with a high polish on their shoes to those whose shoes were coated with the ash-white dust of Lower Manhattan.” The cardinal lauded first responders – firefighters and cops; nurses, doctors and medical technicians; construction workers and volunteers cutting moving steel and rubble four miles south in a ”selfless search for survivors.” As the fragrant smoke of incense rose up toward the vaulted ceilings, Egan made his way to the pulpit, reminding worshipers that healing takes time. ”I am sure 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,” he said. Presciently, Egan warned against the scourge of Islamophobic prejudice: “I am sure that we’ll allow no group or groups in our diverse but united community to be accused or abused because of the outrageous misdeeds of individuals.” As he left the cathedral, he shook hands and led congregants in a resounding chorus of “America the Beautiful.”

In Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, Martin Cottingham entered Holy Name to find its pews crowded with hundreds more people than usual. Her husband Vincent still missing, Cathy Brunton sat with their daughter Kelly, 22, and their son Thomas, 20. Cathy and Vincent had been married at the church in 1976, and later baptized their children there in the midst of the Iranian hostage crisis. A mile and change north of Holy Name, Father Gregory Stankus told parishioners at St. Francis Xavier “to create and to rebuild, not just our buildings, but rebuild our hearts and our society.”

In a survey conducted on September 13, four out of five New Yorkers revealed that they were more likely to attend religious services or pray in the wake of the attacks. In a Gallup poll conducted later that week, three-quarters of those surveyed said they were praying more than usual. Meanwhile, priests at the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark claimed that Mass attendance had risen by 30 percent. Crisis had strengthened greater New York’s Catholic character, placing Edward Egan at the helm of the faithful.

Americans, unsurprisingly, reinvested in religion in 9/11’s immediate aftermath. But many clerics, Cardinal Egan included, anticipated a more permanent and profound shift in religiosity, mainly because the catastrophe had been so large and so terrifying. Ten days after the attacks, Roman Catholic bishops across the country, viewing themselves as sources of moral support and spiritual guidance, wrote a letter to President George W. Bush, backing his efforts to hold terrorists accountable. But they also underscored the importance of abiding by national and international law, of sticking to “sound moral principles” and avoiding civilian casualties in the event of a military response. Echoing Egan’s sentiments in St. Patrick’s cathedral, the letter condemned the harassment of Arab- and Muslim-Americans, calling the groups “our brothers and sisters, part of our national family.” Two and a half weeks later, President Bush announced that airstrikes, targeting Al Qaeda and the Taliban, were underway across the globe in Afghanistan.

On November 10, as Tommy Brunton kept searching for pieces of his brother Vinny, Regan Grice-Vega attended her first Knicks game without her husband Peter. Peter’s father-in-law had bought Regan two floor seats to the game at the Garden, to which she took her twin brother. That night, the Golden State Warriors beat the Knicks 90 to 71. The recent widow would later describe the outing as “bittersweet… fun – but hard.” Having found no scrap of his body, a requirement for Catholic funerals, by mid-December, Vincent Brunton’s family held a memorial Mass for him at the Holy Name of Jesus. At the church where Brunton had been baptized and confirmed, Brunton’s missing body would receive no Rite of Reception or Liturgy of the Word. But on the corner of Brooklyn’s Prospect Avenue and Prospect Park West, dozens of FDNY bagpipers marched past rows of grieving firefighters and crowds of Captain Brunton’s friends, family and neighbors. A mass of overflow mourners stood out in the rain, listening to Rev. John Gildea’s Mass emanate from speakers. In his eulogy, Tommy Brunton, a firefighter for Engine Co. 310 and a bagpiper for the FDNY Emerald Society, remembered his brother as a “stand-up guy” who loved to work out, root for the Yankees and vacation on the Jersey Shore. After the service, Mayor Giuliani told a grieving crowd, “We honor his entire career, not just what he did on September 11.” Two blocks away Farrell’s, the ever-open tavern where Brunton worked part-time, closed for the memorial, draping a black and purple funeral bunting across the bar and hanging a photo of the beloved fire captain in the window.

In the community surrounding Holy Name, historically Irish- and Italian-American and full of civil servants, saying goodbye was a constant in the months after 9/11. On the day of his baby Brendan’s christening, Martin Cottingham recalls, several people were late, held up by FDNY and NYPD funerals across the city.

On Christmas Eve, 2001, 2,500 people attended the Service of Lessons and Carols at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Meanwhile, marines in Kabul made eggnog from powder. At Ground Zero on Christmas morning, Father Brian J. Jordan, a Franciscan priest from Mychal Judge’s parish, celebrated mass before some 50 first responders. He stood before the cross of steel that Frank Silecchia had found two days after the towers fell. On a chilly New Year’s Day, as Michael Bloomberg was sworn in as New York City’s 108th mayor in Times Square, Ground Zero workers, after nearly four months of searching, found Peter Vega’s remains. Identified by the braces on his teeth and the yin/yang tattoo on his shoulder, Vega’s body was discovered beneath a pile of rubble, lying next to Robert Regan and Joseph Agnello—two other members of Ladder 118. On January 5, the three of them would be buried together in Green-Wood Cemetery, six blocks from the home Vega shared with his wife Regan and daughter Ruby.

Five months after 9/11, another crisis—this time from the inside—shook the faith of Catholic New York. On Sunday, March 17, 2002, The Hartford Courant published excerpts of confidential depositions implicating Cardinal Edward Egan in a sex abuse cover-up during his time as bishop of Bridgeport. As gathered from the documents, Egan had failed to take action against accused predator priests, silencing victims’ calls for compensation and never reporting the allegations to law enforcement. After staying silent for two days, Egan defended his handling of the Bridgeport cases: “Sexual abuse of children is an abomination. It leaves scars on its victims that long endure. My heart goes out to any and all victims and their families.” Though he promised that the archdiocese would investigate the charges, he insisted that the Courant’s story included inaccuracies and had left out important details. The cardinal was “confident,” he said, “that these cases were handled appropriately.”

On Palm Sunday, Cardinal Egan admitted a “time of great suffering for the church” in a homily to congregants in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Five months earlier, he had told fearful and grieving New Yorkers “to conquer evil with good” from the same pulpit. “I have taken steps to see that there is no more of this,” he declared. “This evil will be stamped out with all the fervor of the Lord and the Lord’s people.” The next day, Jimmy Riches’ father finally found his firefighter son’s remains.

The Church had brought hope to many New Yorkers in the months following September 11. But by the spring of 2002, a widening scandal, like a slow but sure infection, had arrived in the Five Boroughs, ready to unravel nearly two centuries’ worth of accrued Catholic power.



Joseph Coen, archivist at the Diocese of Brooklyn

Martin Cottingham

Bill Foulkes

Patsy Sohn


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