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Rise and fall of Bishop Holley raises questions about connections to McCarrick

Even if McCarrick was merely the instrument the Vatican used to get a new bishop in Holley, the faithful deserve to know why the Vatican used him, tainted as McCarrick was even in 2004.

Bishop Martin D. Holley of Memphis, Tenn. is pictured in a 2017 photo. (CNS photo/Rick Musacchio, Tennessee Register)

The removal of Bishop Martin Holley from the See of Memphis, Tennessee on Wednesday sets in even higher relief the one thing needful: justice must be seen to be done.

But Bishop Holley’s removal, at the moment, raises more questions than it answers. Among them: Why was he removed? This question has both a mechanical and a rational valence: why did the Pope have to remove him — in other words, did Francis ask Holley for his resignation, only to have him refuse, as has been reported? Then, on what canonical grounds is he relieved?

The Pope’s power to depose bishops is well established, an immediate consequence of his Supremacy — dogmatically defined by the First Vatican Council, but created by Christ and exercised through the centuries — which is at once the keystone and lynchpin of his universal governance of the universal Church. Those, however, are ultimately questions for canon law scholars and Church historians.

There are other, prior questions, which speak to the nitty-gritty of Francis’s governance: Why was Holley appointed in the first place? Who recommended him? How did he rise?

Here is what we know.

Bishop Martin Holley was a priest of Pensacola-Tallahassee, ordained to the priesthood in 1987, at the age of 32. When Holley received episcopal ordination in 2004, his principal consecrator was the then-Archbishop of Washington, DC, Theodore McCarrick. Holley served as an auxiliary of Washington until 2016, when Pope Francis made him Bishop of Memphis.

In a puff piece shortly after Holley’s installation in Memphis, Catholic News Service quoted the disgraced former Archbishop of Washington as saying of Holley, “[He is] a man of great compassion … who has the courage and willingness to plow new fields and build new houses for the Lord.” In his own remarks at the installation Mass, Bishop Holley said of his mentor, Cardinal Wuerl, “[His example] has prepared me for this new appointment.”

Even if McCarrick was merely the instrument the Vatican used to get a new bishop in Holley, the faithful deserve to know why the Vatican used him, tainted as McCarrick was even in 2004. One might be tempted to respond that McCarrick was Archbishop of Washington, and a Cardinal, and ordained lots of bishops. Yet that is precisely the point. Did McCarrick have a hand in Holley’s promotion? What was their relationship?

Whatever the truth of these matters, it is clear that it was business-as-usual in the bishop-factory, at least as late as 2016, by which time the Vatican certainly was aware of McCarrick’s character and proclivities.

The era of good feeling in Memphis was anyhow short-lived. Less than a year after his installation, Holley announced a major reshuffle of clergy in the diocese. As many as two thirds of priests were reassigned, many of them receiving temporary billets as “parochial administrators” rather than as pastors.

Holley gave no public explanation for his actions, either to priests or to the faithful, despite repeated calls from both for him to explain himself. He also brought in an outsider, Msgr. Clement Machado, to be his Vicar General.

In June of this year, after several letters complaining of Holley’s authoritarian and unresponsive leadership, Archbishops Wilton Gregory of Atlanta and Bernard Hebda of Minneapolis-St. Paul conducted a two-day Apostolic Visitation, during which they interviewed between forty and fifty priests of the diocese.

A week after the conclusion of the Visitation, Msgr. Machado stepped down as Vicar General and left the diocese, ostensibly to complete his academic studies and care for his ailing mother.

On Wednesday, October 24th, after Church Militant published a report the previous day claiming Holley would be relieved on Friday, October 26th, the Press Office of the Holy See announced his removal, stating that Pope Francis “has appointed as apostolic administrator ‘sede vacante et ad nutum Sanctae Sedis’ of the same diocese H.E. Msgr. Joseph E. Kurtz, archbishop of Louisville.” The Church Militant report was based on the contents of email correspondence the outlet had obtained between Holley and the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Christophe Pierre.

News of Holley’s removal came one day after Karl Racine, the Attorney General for the District of Columbia, announced his office had begun a civil investigation of the Archdiocese of Washington, looking specifically into the Archdiocese’s handling of sexual abuse claims.

Time will tell whether the story of Bishop Holley’s tenure in the See of Memphis is really only one of authoritarian clergy administration and pastoral aloofness, or whether there is more to it than that. The faithful in Memphis — not only in Memphis, but certainly there in the first — have a right to know the full truth about the man who was chosen by Pope Francis and whose short time as bishop in Memphis was unhappy and now enveloped by serious questions.

In any case, complaints from clergy — reportedly coupled with steep drops in donation revenue — were enough to trigger an Apostolic Visitation in Memphis. Perhaps there is a lesson there for the broader Church.

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About Christopher R. Altieri 237 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.


  1. Thank you for looking into this. Good questions. Some eye-witness testimonies might help bring clarity. I agree with you, Bp. Holley looks suspicious given his time in DC under Abp. McCarrick and Cdl. Wuerl, but the apostolic visitation by Bps Gregory and Hebda, who seem far left-leaning, raises the possibility that Holley is orthodox and so is being punished. Surely this can be easily attested to.

  2. If you think a favor is getting a Diocese like Memphis, you clearly don’t understand the politics of the Church. Memphis is in the Bible belt and has about 70k catholics and on the verge of Banckrupcy. A favor is getting the Diocese of Baltimore.

    Sometimes you are required to play nice, and be respectful. However read between the lines ” Weurl prepared me for this assignment” . I read that is I was in one battle and I am on my way to the next. Being a parishioner in DC for 20 years, I can tell you I know Bishop Martin Holley and he is not part of the Lavender Club. He detest that Evil within the church.

    Vigano puts his third letter out last week asking Bishops who know the truth to come forward. On Monday they fire Bishop Holley and ask him to leave by Friday. Unprecedented. Bishop Holley knows where the bodies are buried and this is nothing more than a hatchet job. Wuerl hid homosexuals and Pedophiles, McCarrick was both. Wuerl has posh job in the Vatican and lives in a 40 million dollar mansion, Wuerl set McCarrick up in Kansas City. The Homosexuals take care of each other. Bishop Holly does not have a home, a parish or a job. I know this man and he has been protecting seminarians and souls for years, he hates this evil and is not part of the club Francis protects. The previous Bishop of Memphis was a active Homosexual and spread it through the Diocese of Memphis. Bishop Holley was getting rid of these priest ant the club did not like it. He moved priest and was fiscally responsible in closing schools.
    Wuerl did not get a promotion because Bishop Holley warned Pope Benedict about him. This is simply about revenge.

    • Thanks for your comment. Reading and watching what I can find on Holley and it seemed that they were setting someone up as a scapegoat or trying to attach an air of criminality without naming a crime. More precisely and assuming that he is a man of integrity, I suspect that they needed to murder his good name so that he would not have credibility with those of us who do not know who he is in case he witnessed something and would step forward like Vigano. I am definitely going to presume innocence of this man.

    • And this is why, after 64 years, 12 of those spent in Catholic schools, I sadly no longer count myself as a devout Catholic. Father Holly was my priest in Pensacola and I found him to be a good and holy man. I am disillusioned by the church politics and criminal activities. I now think of myself now as a follower of Jesus and focus on his teachings while he walked the Earth. The Catholic Church has lost its right to make the rules for me.

  3. First of all, everyone knows this pope surrounds himself with “morally compromised “ men; ergo, Bishop Holly was not removed due to any sexual misdeeds. Secondly, this pope is a dictator who acts on his whims and his feelings,not on facts. Look at the Chile debacle. Also, the Cardinal of Honduras is his closest friend. His seminarians are crying out for relief from the homosexuals there and are ignored by the pope. “Revenge” from Wuerl sounds a little far-fetched, not because Wuerl is incapable of it, but merely because he probably could have prevented the appointment. Bishop Holly’s transfer of so many priests without explanation was bound to cause an uproar. His failure to foresee this, coupled with doing it so soon after his arriva,l points to a lack of administrative ability or incipient dementia. Of course, this analysis is done from afar with only a few known facts.

    • I also have known and traveled with Bishop Holley and know him to be a very holy and spirita man and A humble inspirational leader. I agree with Paul that Bishop Holley must despise the evil rot in the church, though he never spoke to me. I also agree that more is afoot here: Archbishop Gregory, recently installed as Head of the Washington Archdiocese replacing Cardinal Wuerl. Is he there to clean house or to protect the corruption? How ABp Gregory proceeds will reveal whether Bp Holley was fairly sacked. Pray for her our Church that the Holy Spirit will guide the faithful and protect our holy clergy.

  4. I am just curious, when did it become acceptable for Catholics (or anyone) to have no problem trashing people’s reputations, while purely speculating on a person’s motives, etc. Next time, when claiming to be ‘orthodox’, one should remember that slander and gossip, are not only very harmful and destructive they are grievous sins.

  5. I met Bishop Holly while visiting Northern Florida. As a lapse Catholic I was amazed to meet and over the years have the opportunity to get to know this incredibly humble, non-judgmental man of deep faith. His example was drawing me back to the church. I like all who really know him, are 100% certain that his integrity is unquestionable, and I can only say that the Church with all their problems can ill afford to lose a man of such quality. Clearly there is more intrigue in the Catholic church hierarchy than any medievel principality.

  6. I have known Bishop Martin Holley since his beginning days as a seminarian. I welcomed him to our Parish (St. Sylvester Catholic Church) in Tiger Point/Navarre FL. He has always been a man of integrity and compassion. Bishop Holley came from humble beginnings. When he was installed as Bishop in Washington DC. Many of the priests in Pensacola/Tallahassee FL (especially Pensacola were upset due to being elevated to Bishop when most of the priests have never been appointed to a higher calling. I can tell you there is something suspicious about all of this. I here today that McCarrik(sp) was defrocked. Bishop Holley is a gracious and good man.

    • It is incredible for me to read this article and these comments. I knew Fr. Holley when he was a St. Mary in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. I was a teenager and altar boy at St. Mary when he was there. I knew everyone and all the families at St. Mary and everyone only had the highest regard for the man. I literally, just this evening, for whatever reason, thought, “Hey, I wonder where Fr. Holley is?” This was the first article that came up. I am certainly on the side of everyone who commented their disbelief and skepticism of this story. I know first hand that Fr. Holley was/is a gentle soul, a good man. I now want to learn more about where he is and how he is doing.

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