The Princes of the Catholic Church in America tend to be discreet men with a passion for avoiding controversy. But the ecclesiastical uproar that erupted in Chicago last month could rival a Medici court—or the Vatican under the Borgias—in its unseemly intrigue. No less an authority than Chicago's imperious archbishop, John Cardinal Cody, 73, was embroiled in a scandal involving power, money—and his relationship with a woman, Helen Dolan Wilson, 74. Wilson and Cody have known each other since childhood. In 1913 his maternal aunt married her widowed father, making Wilson and Cody step-cousins. Now, a blistering series of exposes in the Chicago Sun-Times has strongly implied that the head of the nation's largest archdiocese enriched his relative at the expense of the Church. "They make me seem like a tramp—or a kept woman," Wilson tearfully responded in the Chicago Tribune. "They're accusing the Cardinal of being a thief and they are scandalizing me."

The U.S. attorney in Chicago is investigating reports that Cody, over 15 years, diverted up to $1 million in Church funds for Wilson's benefit. Wilson admits that in 1969 Cody lent her $21,000 (less than half of which she paid back) to build a posh vacation home in Boca Raton, Fla. She sold that home in 1972 to buy a luxurious condominium (now valued by neighbors at $250,000) in the same town. For six years she collected a salary from the Chicago Archdiocese, but employees say they never saw her in the chancery offices. "I have nothing to rebut," Cody declared. He later stoutly maintained to a group of Catholic women that his enemies intended "to vituperate" the Church by "striking at its shepherd."

What the furor has brought to light is the extraordinary lifelong relationship between the celibate septuagenarian and the divorced mother of two.

Born into an Irish-Catholic neighborhood in North St. Louis, Helen Dolan played as a child with young "Jack" Cody. "He would work for my Uncle Johnny for a quarter a week to snitch on the rest of us kids if we got on the railroad tracks," she said. "He always had more sense than the rest of us." They soon became fast friends. "Every Sunday," Wilson recalled, "we'd go to our grandmother's house and play church." In 1926, when both were 19, Jack went to Rome to study for the priesthood. A year later Helen married David Beam Wilson. The union of the strictly raised Catholic girl and the Baptist proved unhappy, however, and ended in divorce in 1939, after two children.

Perhaps scarred by marriage, Wilson sought the company of one group of men with whom she could not fear matrimony. "She had priests in there all the time," one former St. Louis neighbor recalls. In 1957 Wilson, another woman and a priest were questioned by police in suburban St. Louis for breaking into a house at 4 a.m. They explained to the authorities and the startled occupants that they had been returning from the anniversary celebration of another cleric's ordination, panicked when their car was caught in a flash flood and sought help. The police released them later that morning.

That was the only public embarrassment in Wilson's life—until two weeks ago. Certainly, Wilson, who once subsisted on $1 a month alimony and $50 child support, has not suffered through her relationship with Cody. In addition to Church jobs she held in St. Louis and Chicago during Cody's service in those cities, her 46-year-old son David, an insurance agent, has received generous commissions from those sees and from New Orleans, where Cody was archbishop. When Cody moved from Louisiana to Chicago in 1965, Wilson followed four years later and settled into an expensive lakefront high-rise. In 1975 she moved back to St. Louis.

Cody has frequently visited Wilson, but even his enemies doubt that the relationship is more than platonic. When the story broke, Fr. Thomas Libera, chairman of the dissident Association of Chicago Priests, said: "This is not the particular pound of flesh we wanted." Chicago Catholics—who have long faulted Cody for autocratic administration, secretive handling of funds and insensitivity to clergy and laity alike—say that the archbishop is reaping the legacy of decades of high-handedness. "This is not Abelard and Heloise," says Loyola University psychologist and former priest Eugene Kennedy, a longtime Cody critic. "The real story here is that Cody is the Willy Loman of the American Church."