New York Cardinal 'near death'

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Cardinal John O'Connor, one of the most senior figures in the Catholic church in America, was close to death last night, his spokesman said.

A significant figure in the political and cultural as well as religious life of New York, Cardinal O'Connor had been ill for some time, undergoing surgery for a brain tumour last year.

"The Cardinal is at the hour of his death," said a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York. "We do not know precisely when he will die ... but I think it is clear that he is, in Catholic terms, at the hour of his death."

Cardinal O'Connor made a last visit to Rome to see the Pope earlier this year. He had already turned 80 and was due to be replaced, but no decision had been made. One leading contender is Donald Wuerl, the Bishop of Pittsburgh, another conservative figure.

Cardinal O'Connor was born in 1920 in Philadelphia. He was ordained in 1945 and spent much of his life as a military chaplain, leaving the US navy in 1979. The war encouraged many to join the priesthood, he said at a service earlier this year. "We don't want the horror repeated, but we do want the sacrifices, we do want the vocations." In 1983 he was appointed Bishop of Scranton in Pennsylvania, before becoming Archbishop of New York in 1984 and a cardinal in 1985.

Often regarded as a traditionalist and conservative, Cardinal O'Connor maintained the church's strict opposition to abortion, but as he grew older he became opposed to the death penalty. "What I would like my epitaph to say is simply that 'He was a good priest'," he once said.