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The US and Roman theaters of the crisis in the Catholic Church have entered a new phase of carelessness—of the reputations of men who may or may not have done grave wrong; of the rights of Christians of every age and sex and state of life to know the truth; of the good of the Church.
That we are entered upon such a phase is amply attested by the removal of Bishop Martin D. Holley from the See of Memphis; the allegations that Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo covered up for priests accused of abuse; and the revelation that the Vatican was informed as early as 1994 about the strange proclivities of the disgraced former archbishop of Washington, DC, “Uncle Ted” McCarrick.
Now, we learn that another bishop—New York’s 74-year-old auxiliary John Jenik—has a “credible and substantiated” allegation against him. The allegation reportedly concerns incidents that date back many years, and involves a victim who was a minor at the time. The Archdiocese of New York has offered no further details, though the New Yok Times on Wednesday reported that the victim is 52-year-old Michael Meenan, who was 13 at the time the alleged abusive relationship began.
Meenan has also complained of abuse committed in 1984 by his religion teacher at Fordham Prep; he received compensation for the incident in 2016. Meenan told the Times he brought his allegation against Bishop Jenik to the archdiocese in January; he says the archdiocesan review board interviewed him last week.
Bishop Jenik wrote a letter to the parishioners of Our Lady of Refuge parish, where he has been pastor for more than 30 years. He denied the allegations, of course. In fairness, “credible and substantiated” is a low standard: it basically comes to mean the allegation is not manifestly false, and is capable in principle of being investigated. Jenik also managed in his letter to mention his recent hip surgery, and his upcoming operation on the other hip.
In a letter of his own addressed to the parishioners of Our Lady of Refuge, the archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, wrote, “Although Bishop Jenik continues to deny the accusation, loyal priest that he is, he has stepped aside from public ministry, and, as we await Rome’s review, may not function or present himself as a bishop or priest.”
Why did it take the archdiocese 10 months to interview Meenan after he made his allegation against Bishop Jenik? Was the archdiocesan review board investigating the allegation, and if so, what was Bishop Jenik doing while the investigation was underway? Was he under any sort of restrictions? If so, of what sort? When did the Archdiocese of New York inform Rome of the allegation against Bishop Jenik? Those are just a few of the questions a minimally candid statement on the matter would answer. For that matter, the statement might have mentioned that Cardinal Dolan ordained Jenik a bishop in 2014. Did he ask Pope Francis specifically for Jenik as an auxiliary?
Any family in which the head of the household failed to disclose such pertinent information in similar circumstances would be fairly judged dysfunctional. Cardinal Dolan has said he is “impatient” with the Holy Father’s handling of the crisis. Now, it appears he has taken a page from the Vatican’s book.
The Vatican’s carelessness is on display in the matter of Bishop Holley.
A summary of all the claims and counter-claims in the Holley case would run to significant length. Suffice it to say that we know the Vatican cited a “management issue” in justification of Holley’s removal. The apostolic administrator appointed by Pope Francis to lead Memphis in the interim, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, gave an interview to CWR in which he did not deny knowing more about the reason for Holley’s ouster, but only said, “I have to rely on statements of the Vatican about this; I can’t speak beyond that.”
Archbishop Kurtz demurred when CWR asked him whether Bishop Holley’s removal is unusual, and took care to explain that he is not in Memphis as an investigator or a fixer: “I can’t comment on how unusual it is, other than to say that sometimes there are changes. As I told the people in Memphis, my task is not to deal with what went on before this change, but what is happening presently.”
One reason for the Vatican’s caginess regarding Holley’s removal may be a general reluctance to be seen as managing too closely the affairs of ordinary ecclesiastical jurisdictions; such behavior does not appear to comport well with the Vatican’s claims—behind which it has successfully shielded itself from civil liability in abuse cases—that bishops are not agents or employees of the Holy See in any legally pertinent sense.
The real reason behind Holley’s ouster may be so grave that the bishop of Memphis could not be allowed to stay one more day in his See, and the danger to the Church so sinister that disclosure of even a part of the reason would further imperil her. If it is not, then the refusal to disclose the reasons for Holley’s removal is, at the very least, inexcusably careless of Holley’s reputation, not to mention the rights of the faithful to know the truth about the state of the Church and the conduct of their pastors.
Suppose for a moment that the “management issue” is no more than run-of-the-mill poor job performance. Why is that enough to earn this bishop a pink slip, while elsewhere all manner of moral negligence and even malfeasance seem to be tolerated for long periods of time? For example, Pope Francis let Bishop Michael Bransfield retire—not altogether peacefully—at 75, though Bransfield was under a cloud of suspicion for years and is now under investigation along with the diocese he used to lead. There are plausible reasons for handling Bransfield as the Vatican did, but the long-suffering faithful (and many of the clergy) in Wheeling-Charleston are impatient with half-truths and assurances that all is well in hand.
If mismanagement is a reason for removal, then it is worth asking how much longer Bishop Richard Malone will remain in the See of Buffalo.
Earlier this week “60 Minutes” aired an interview with Bishop Malone’s whistle-blowing former executive assistant:
The hundreds of pages Siobhan O’Connor uncovered included personnel files and memos. They revealed that for years Bishop Malone allowed priests accused of sexual assault such as statutory rape and groping to stay on the job.
The August exposé by local ABC affiliate WKBW that led to the “60 Minutes” report is more detailed, and more damning. Here is the case of Father Art Smith, suspended in 2011 after school officials complained of grooming behavior. Malone rehabilitated Smith when he took over the diocese in 2012:
[D]ocuments show the principal reported to the diocese that Father Smith refused to stay away from the school, showing up outside a classroom in April 2012. The principal fired off a letter to the diocese saying, “This man is a predator and a groomer of young children. Something needs to be done… As school principal, I feel the students in grade 8 have been injured and troubled by the actions of this man more than originally thought.”
The WKBW report then details how Malone returned Father Smith to active ministry, giving him a post at a nursing home. Smith also heard confessions at an event for young people that included hundreds of teenagers. When she heard of it, Principal Hider wrote to Malone:
“If a teacher would have been grooming children and had inappropriate relations with a minor, they would have been fired and lost their license to teach… Yet a priest that has a history of inappropriate contact with the youth was among the youth ministering the sacrament of Reconciliation.”
WKBW reports that Bishop Malone replied to Hider to the effect that Father Smith’s behavior was not technically in violation of the Charter for the Protection of Young People. Let that sink in.
Bishop Malone issued a statement ahead of the “60 Minutes” report, explaining his reasons for declining an interview with the program:
First, the Church is in the eye of a storm largely as a result of wrong decisions made decades ago and even some made recently, as I have acknowledged. But, our efforts and our focus have always remained steadfast: protect the children and reconcile with the victims.
Second, while “60 Minutes” is free to interview whomever they wish for this story, it is clear to me and my staff that your roster of interviews did not include those who are aware of the full extent of the efforts of our Diocese to combat child abuse. Nor does it include those who urge me every day to stay the course and restore the confidence of our faithful.
The first reason is at best self-serving. That second one, though—boy, howdy. Had he accepted the interview, Bishop Malone would have been on the roster. Is there perhaps someone in his diocese better informed on the matters he listed who might have gone in his stead?
On Wednesday, Bishop Malone’s communications office released a statement calling Siobhan O’Connor’s testimony “plainly and embarrassingly contradictory,” and published several emails the diocese claims “demonstrate [O’Connor’s] complete admiration for [Bishop Malone] and his efforts to lead the Diocese.” The diocese does not address the allegations, but attacks the woman who brought them—with proof—before the public.
Was Bishop Holley’s mismanagement worse than that of which Bishop Malone was first accused in August? At the very least, a power responsible for oversight of bishops’ conduct should open an investigation into Malone and his management of the Buffalo diocese.
If Pope Francis believes he can stonewall, or go to ground and wait for the anger to subside, he is sorely mistaken.
The sweltering summer of 2018, which saw the simmering discontent of the long-suffering Catholic faithful in the United States boil over and set fire to the kitchen, will spread rapidly to other rooms in the house.
Indeed, the anger has already spread beyond the confines of the visible Church: more than a dozen states in the US have opened or are considering criminal investigations; the District of Columbia—which has no authority to conduct criminal investigations—has opened a civil investigation; US attorneys are conducting a broadening federal probe.
If Church leaders’ concerns are for scandal, then their silence—from the Vatican on down—is terribly miscalculated. The true scandal is the carelessness at every level of Church governance toward the broad public who have a right, as I put it in an open letter to Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Rhode Island at the start of the summer, “to the Gospel and therefore a right to the Church as Christ intends her to be, rather than as you have made her[.]”
In any case, the Catholic Church’s house will be clean. The only questions are whether it shall be God’s Vicar on Earth who cleans it, or Caesar, and whether the cleansing shall come before or after the fire sale.
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