Toledo bishop’s promotion to Hartford draws mixed reactions

Vatican watchers waiting for the “Pope Francis effect” to guide the Roman Catholic Church into a new era did not see it in the appointment of Toledo Bishop Leonard Blair as archbishop-designate of Hartford, CT.

Robert Mickens, a Toledo native and veteran journalist who covers the Vatican for The Tablet, a highly respected Catholic news weekly based in London, said from Rome that Francis has been critical of “careerist” bishops who aspire to larger dioceses, yet the pope promoted Blair who is “a careerist, no doubt.”

Bishop Leonard Blair speaks to the media at a news conference this morning in Hartford, CT. Screen shot from hartfordarchdiocese.org

Bishop Leonard Blair speaks to the media at a news conference this morning in Hartford, CT. Screen shot from hartfordarchdiocese.org

“It’s just more of the same,” Mickens said. “It’s clear that the same old ‘old-boys network’ is at work.”

Advocates for clerical sexual abuse victims also criticized Francis for promoting Blair to an archdiocese with twice as many members as Toledo.

“There is no congruency between the vision that Pope Francis puts forward and his actions here in Toledo, Ohio,” said Claudia Vercellotti, co-coordinator of the Toledo chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “Either Pope Francis is asleep at the wheel and has no idea who he’s promoted, or he is ambivalent. Either way, it’s dangerous.”

She acknowledged that Blair walked into a “mess” when he arrived in Toledo after the death of Bishop James Hoffman in February, 2003. But she faulted his handling of numerous situations including the treatment of clerical sexual abuse victims, the closing of parishes despite fervent pleas of parishioners, and his actions when one of his priests was charged in the murder of a nun.

“If you want to get out of the hole that was dug, you put the shovel down and stop digging. Instead, Bishop Blair picked up the shovel and dug double-time,” said Vercellotti, who was never granted a meeting with Blair during his 10 years in Toledo. “He had an opportunity to end the suffering of so many who have been devastated by the ongoing clergy sexual abuse scandal, but he just dug the hole deeper.”

Some local Catholic leaders, however, disputed the view that Blair is not “pastoral” enough.

‘He has been very pastoral’

Peter Feldmeier, professor of Catholic studies at the University of Toledo, said he attends Corpus Christi University Parish where “lots of people are not fans of him there,” but “my own personal experience with him has been very, very positive. He has been very pastoral on his part and very solicitous. … He has advocated for me even though I’ve been an ‘institutional resister’ in some ways.”

He said people who work with Blair have said the bishop “always has a good attitude, he’s a morale booster, and he cares about what you’re doing.”

The Rev. Jim Bacik, theologian and retired Toledo priest, said “Bishop Blair showed great respect for me as a pastor of Corpus Christi and I appreciated that and thanked him for that.”

Blair also befriended the local Muslim community, according to Dr. S. Zaheer Hasan. “We have a very cordial relationship with the Catholic church here. They’ve been very supportive of us.”

He said he is “happy to see him promoted but I am unhappy to see him leave. We feel we are losing a friend, but we hope he puts in a good word for us with the new bishop.”

Blair had also affirmed the diocese’s relationship with local Lutherans, renewing a covenant between the Toledo diocese and the Northwestern Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in 2006 and embarking on an ecumenical pilgrimage with Lutheran Bishop Marcus Lohrmann to Italy and Germany in 2007.

Protest in Hartford

Members of SNAP and the Catholic reform group Voice of the Faithful protested outside the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Hartford on Wednesday (Oct. 30), the day after Blair’s appointment was announced in Rome.

They called on Blair to “post the names, photos and whereabouts of current and former Hartford area priests, nuns, seminarians and other child-molesting clerics.”

Gerald Robinson, Toledo Catholic priest, is in prison for the murder of a nun. Photo from Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction

Gerald Robinson, Toledo Catholic priest, is in prison for the murder of a nun. Photo from Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction

Protesters also criticized the 64-year-old Toledo bishop for his actions when one of his priests, Gerald Robinson, was arrested in 2004 for the brutal 1980 murder of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl. Robinson, now 75, was convicted in 2006 and is serving a 15-years-to-life sentence in an Ohio prison.

SNAP said in a statement that while Blair and the diocese staff were not formally charged with wrongdoing in the Robinson case, “there remain a number of troubling unresolved questions about how Blair and his top aides behaved before and during that investigation.”

When Lucas County prosecutors requested the church’s files on Robinson, for example, the diocese turned over three pages with minimal information. The prosecutors returned months later with a no-knock search warrant and obtained a thick sheaf of documents on Robinson from the diocese’s sub secreto (or secret) church files.

SNAP also questioned why a priest convicted of murdering a nun has not been laicized and urged Blair to “use his influence to try and get the priest defrocked.”

David Clohessy, national executive director of SNAP, said the Vatican said it is “streamlining the defrocking process,” and there is no reason not to proceed with the laicization of Robinson. Vatican officials have not responded to requests from ToledoFAVS for information on the status of Robinson.

The arrest and murder conviction of one of his own priests was a rude welcome for Blair, who was forced to deal with Robinson’s arrest just five months after being installed as bishop of Toledo.

During that same period, the diocese was reeling from the clerical sexual abuse scandal that had erupted in Boston in 2002 and spread throughout the nation and world.

The Toledo diocese, which now reports on its website that 46 of its clerics have been accused of molesting minors between 1950 and 2012, paid a total of $1.9 million in settlements in 2004 to 23 people who sued for alleged child sexual abuse.

“It’s heartbreaking to see a pope who many consider ‘groundbreaking’ continue the long, painful Vatican practice of promoting complicit and compromised bishops,” Clohessy said. He gave limited praise to Blair for being one of 30 U.S. bishops to post “some names” online of priests who abused children, but said it was done “under duress” to give the impression that progress was being made and “forestall the chance of legislative reforms of the statutes of limitation.”

Blair lobbied strongly against Ohio Senate Bill 17, which would have extended the time limits for filing lawsuits on alleged sexual abuse of minors. The bill did not pass.

Managerial skills needed

One Vatican expert who thinks Francis made a wise pick with Blair is Rocco Palmo, editor of the “Whispers in the Loggia” blog.

Palmo said reporters who criticize Blair’s appointment as being out of step with Francis’ vision are being unfair and shallow. The 700,000-member Hartford archdiocese is in dire need of a leader with the managerial skills Blair has demonstrated in Toledo, he said.

Hartford is beset with “an aging infrastructure and shifting demographics” that “will require no shortage of tough calls over the tenure to come,” according to Palmo. He pointed out that Blair developed his management skills while serving as secretary to the now-retired Cardinal Edmund Szoka when the cardinal was head of the Vatican’s economic affairs department and governor of Vatican City.

Among the tough financial moves Blair made in Toledo was to close 17 parishes and merge 16 others in 2005, citing a growing shortage of priests.

The year before, he pulled the diocese’s $117 million in investments out of local brokerage firms and sent the money to Detroit, rankling area businessmen and people in the pews but asserting it was necessary to yield better returns on investments.

Blair also laid off 11 full-time staff members in 2004, citing  $600,000 shortfall in the diocese’s $6.7 million fiscal budget.

Bob Mickens, a native of Toledo, covers the Vatican for The Tablet, a London-based Catholic news magazine founded in 1840.

Robert Mickens, a native of Toledo, covers the Vatican for The Tablet, a London-based Catholic news magazine founded in 1840.

Mickens, who was critical of Blair’s overall record in Toledo, acknowledged that the Toledo bishop is an experienced administrator, which is an important asset for bishops. “You have to include administrative skills” in deciding episcopal appointments, he said.

Blair is better known for his expertise on doctrine, serving on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ committee on doctrine and evangelization and catechesis, and chairing the USCCB’s subcommittee on the catechism.

As a member of the committee on doctrine, Blair in 2009 looked into the practice of Reiki, a holistic therapy involving the massaging of people’s “life energy,” and barred it from the Toledo diocese. Many nuns who had been practicing Reiki for years were privately outraged by the ruling and were indignant that the bishop never consulted them before banning a practice they believe is beneficial. Blair said it wasn’t necessary to meet with the nuns because Reiki literature was widely available on the Internet.

Blair’s expertise on doctrine led to his being tapped by the Vatican in 2008 to lead the high-profile — and controversial — assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a group representing 80 percent of America’s 57,000 Catholic nuns.

The assessment, often criticized as heavy-handed and patriarchal, concluded that the LCWR was “silent on the right to life from conception to natural death” and that it did not promote church teaching on “issues of crucial importance to the life of the church and society, such as the church’s biblical view of family life and human sexuality.”

Blair’s report also pointed out “occasional public statements by the LCWR that disagree with or challenge positions taken by the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals….”

Findings of ‘grave’ concern

The Vatican called Blair’s findings “grave and a matter of serious concern,” and ordered a five-year reform of the nuns’ group, with the Toledo bishop assisting in the oversight.

The new pope, meanwhile, has urged priests and bishops to focus on their pastoral duties more than the enforcement of doctrine.

Pope Francis in Brazil, via Wikimedia Commons: http://bit.ly/1aSAgKu

Pope Francis in Brazil, via Wikimedia Commons: http://bit.ly/1aSAgKu

In a June address to papal nuncios, whose job it is to nominate bishops, Francis said he wants them to pick pastors who are “close to the people, fathers and brothers.” They should be “gentle, patient and merciful; animated by inner poverty, the freedom of the Lord and also by outward simplicity and austerity of life.” They should “not have the psychology of ‘Princes.'”

Mickens said that in his opinion, Blair does not fit the criteria sought by the pontiff.

“It’s not clear to me if Francis has been able to get a handle on the appointment of bishops yet,” he said. “Certainly the people in the Congregation for Bishops who are presenting the appointments and suggesting who will be appointed are not following the indications of whom the pope would pick.”

He said Blair is “a careerist, no doubt, and he’s made a lot of friends in Rome over the years, especially while he was here studying and working.”

Mickens sees Blair’s promotion to Hartford as a reward for carrying out the Vatican-ordered LCWR assessment.

“Many times those who take on these sort of ‘hatchet jobs’ for the Holy See are rewarded with promotions,” Mickens said.

Bacik said Francis’ talk with the papal nuncios, who need to fill 11 bishop positions in the United States including Toledo, was encouraging because it renews the focus of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s.

The pope told the nuncios to choose bishops “who know the smell of the sheep,” Bacik said. In other words, to promote clerics who are out among the people and know their flocks.

‘Suffocating’ in the sacristy

“If you stay in the sacristy it’s going to be suffocating,” Bacik said. “You have to be out in the world and breathe fresh air.”

Bacik said the church has a long history of choosing bishops from within a jurisdiction, although that has changed in recent decades.

Father James Bacik listens to a question from the audience after a lecture at the University of Toledo.

Father James Bacik listens to a question from the audience after a lecture at the University of Toledo.

“It makes sense to start by finding someone within the diocese who could be the shepherd of the whole flock,” he said, although it may not be prudent if there is a polarized diocese or another unusual situation.

The pastoral role of the church was the thrust of Vatican II, Bacik said, and Francis has been living it out in public and earning praise everywhere.

“The moral teachings are important but they must be placed in the context of God’s love for everybody and for Christ’s mercy available to all,” Bacik said. “So that is resonating. It’s making a difference in the world and the change of attitude toward the church is just remarkable. And it’s all based on preaching the truth of the gospel and the core of the Christian message. … The more bishops would act like the pope, the better chance they have of attracting people who have left the church and are searching for authenticity.”

He said time has revealed how far from Vatican II the church had gotten under the two previous popes.

“It’s becoming clearer by the minute how different it is when the head man is in tune with that pastoral thrust of the Council,” Bacik said. “It’s just striking. Nobody anticipated it and I think we are only now seeing how much of that was thwarted during the last two pontificates [of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI]. While we were living through it, it wasn’t as clear. It’s only by the contrast.”

Blair, who was not available for an interview with ToledoFAVS.com, will be installed as archbishop of Hartford on Dec. 16 in the Cathedral of St. Joseph and remains bishop of Toledo in the meantime, although on a limited basis. An administrator will be appointed to oversee the Toledo diocese until a new bishop is appointed, which is expected to take four to six months.

Bacik said the pope’s choice of new bishops will be “a big part” of the Catholic Church aligning with the pastoral focus of Vatican II.

“Toledo is right in the center of the question of whether the pastoral instincts of Pope Francis will carry over into the choice of people who will become bishops,” he said.

 

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14 Responses to “Toledo bishop’s promotion to Hartford draws mixed reactions”

  1. Denis Eble

    “Blair lobbied strongly against Ohio Senate Bill 17, which would have extended the time limits for filing lawsuits on alleged sexual abuse of minors. The bill did not pass.”

    Good old boys’ club!

  2. nickbatt

    Mickens’ characterization of the LCWR assessment as a “hatchet job” is grossly unfair. Any organization is entitled to maintain discipline among it’s employees. A McDonald’s manager wouldn’t last long if he was putting down McDonald’s bugers. How much more so among women who have taken vows of obedience. The LCWR’s “disagreements” with the bishops make Luther’s disagreements with the Pope look mild. Bishop Blair and his colleagues did nothing more that put the obvious in writing.

  3. Denis Eble

    Nick- you cannot seriously compare a McDonald’s manager with the Bishop of Toledo. Yet, you go on with an even more specious comparison: Luther’s 95 theses and the complaints against the Catholic sisters.

    As an apologist for the Catholic Church, you will need to produce more proof of wrong-doing by the Sisters than what you have stated above. I’m looking forward to reading these serious charges against the Sisters. What exactly did they do to deserve the witch-hunt inquisition that Blair was charged to investigate? Hopefully it wasn’t as serious as murder ( Fr. Robinson) or priest sexual abuse ( insert names of priests ).

    Murder, molestation of children. Where was Blair? Where? Thwarting investigations and lobbying Catholic Ohio legislators to defeat the ‘look-back law’ which would have temporarily permitted extending the Statute of Limitations on priest sex abuse in the Diocese of Toledo.

    That’s what I know about Blair. Now, what are those ‘serious charges’ against the Sisters?

  4. nickbatt

    Denis;
    I fully meant my references to McDonalds and Luther but the were intended to show the absurdity of the accusation of a hatchet job. You say that you don’t know what the LCWR did wrong–fair enough. The report can be found at http://www.usccb.org/upload/Doctrinal_Assessment_Leadership_Conference_Women_Religious.pdf where the LCWR are found to embrace radical feminist positions incinsistent with church teaching and to assert a “right” to dissent on any issue that is inconsistent with canon law.
    As for your attempt to blame the Bishop for the personal sins of others, however awful; I suggest that you stretch too far. Fr. Robinson and others were a disgrace but Bishop Blair wasn’t even here when it or most of the other things you referenced happened. More recently, the church has taken significant steps to address all these issues. In the final analysis, ours is a church for sinners.
    On the policy question of the statute of limitations revision, I would point outr that all such statutes exist to prevent the unjust prosecution of individuals when memories have faded, witnesses are gone and a defense is far more difficult. I have no view on this particular legislation, but your vehement objection seems to be more knee-jerk than thoughtful.

    • Denis Eble

      No, not “knee jerk” at all, Nick. Blair mindfully and carefully lobbied the Catholic members of the Ohio House and Senate to kill the “Look Back” provision that would have temporarily extended the statute of limitation so that investigations into past priest secxual abuse could be continued. It’s called a cover-up and Blair took an active part in that cover-up to protect the church from further denigration for its continual actions to hide pedophyle priests.

      Re the nuns, they are free to disregard the position that ‘The Church’ takes if they deem these positions will do greater harm to the faithful. Take birth control, for example. The idiotic church policy is no birth control. Really? How many 5-7 children families sit in the pews on Sunday? Someone is ‘disobeying’ the teaching of the bishops! Gosh, can you believe that??

      It is often the nuns who work in the trenches with the faithful, the poor, the beaten wives, the pregnant teens. The nuns, not the priests sipping their scotch in the parlor with the good old boys at the end of the day. The nuns know. They don’t need to be preached to by the ‘superior’ males of the church.

  5. william herzog

    Well said Denis…no Nick this is not a knee jerk reaction from Denis. Not being Catholic I cannot speak into a lot of what has gone on but trust that Denis knows what he is talking about and he cares about it. Cover ups never help. I don’t know the details of the Nun situation but again he is right in the fact that it has been the Mother Teresa’s of this world who has gotten their hands dirty and loved do many either their acts of kindness.

  6. nickbatt

    The LCWR is an organization of the heads of the various orders of nuns in the US. these people are administrators and policy makers. they haven’t “worked in the trenches” or “gotten their hands dirty” for decades if ever. they are certainly not Mother Theresas. She was faithful to the teaching authority of the Church unlike these women who arrogate to themselves powers which they may not lawfully exercise, lead their orders away from the Church and sow confusion among the faithful.
    Denis and William: if you want to side with the LCWR, it’s fine by me. I have many friends who share yours and other even more vociferous anti-Catholic views. You and I will have to just agree to disagree. Thank God we live in a free country. I wish you the best in your spiritual journey—but I won’t be expecting you at Mass anytime soon. I’ve enjoyed or conversation and I’m thankful to Toledo FAVs that we have a forum for these conversations. It sure beats the wars before the Peace of Westphalia.

  7. Denis Eble

    Nick- so it’s all about ‘obedience?’ Like little children? Bowing and kissing ecclesiastical rings like medieval peasants?

    You may enjoy that kind of ‘church’ but millions of Catholics seek a religious, spiritual experience that enriches their lives rather than stifling it. Keeping women ‘in their place’ and denying them any leadership roles in the church is such an idiotic policy that it becomes laughable at best.

    There is no reason, Nick, for you to bow out of discussions here. As you point out, we duel with words only rather than swords.

    I wonder if you can refine the following statement you made more clearly. You wrote, “I have many friends who share yours and other even more vociferous anti-Catholic views.”

    What exactly are ‘anti-Catholic views?’ Would one of these views include women in leadership roles?

    • nickbatt

      I’m reluctant to continue this because we seem past the point of edifying each other but since i feel obliged to give an account for the faith I have 1 Peter 3:15, I will respond.
      First a lesson in Management 101. Whether it’s the quarterback calling the plays, the McDonald’s manager promoting the Big Mac over the Burger King knock-off, or the leaders of various orders of nuns being loyal to the Magisterium; all organizations require and have a right to maintain internal discipline. A house divided cannot stand Mark 3:25. I realize that among Protestants with their emphasis on private interpretation of Scripture may find these concepts of discipline foreign in an ecclesiological sense. That’s why i include secular examples. I would note only that this emphasis results in the thousands of Protestant denominations who all claim that their version is the correct interpretation of the same Scriptures— which is fine with me. We’re all brothers and sisters (I hope you aren’t one of those who would deny Catholics the title “Christian”). I believe what I believe. You’re free to disagree but i don’t think it’s a good thing that we have become antagonistic 1 Cor. 3:4; John 17:21
      As for “millions of Catholics” seeking enrichment that they can’t find in the “stifling” Catholic Church, I’m not sure where you get that figure, but there are plenty of cases where Protestants have found Catholic spiritual life more rewarding than Protestant e.g. John Cardinal Newman, and more recently Dr. Scott Hahn. You can watch more cases every week on “The Journey Home” on EWTN with former Presbyterian minister Marcus Grodi as host. If the Catholic Church isn’t for you, fine; but you don’t need to bad mouth it. For my part, I worship as I do because I believe God wants me to do it this way; not for my own personal gratification.
      Turning to your anti- Catholic views–just look at your last post. You equate obedience with being like children (You seem to intend this as a slight but please note Matt 19:17 which calls us to be like children) or like being a medieval peasants (again a slight but these are the folks who built the great cathedrals of Europe, defended Christendom against invasions by the Vikings,the Mongols, and the Moors, gave rise to the first universities and produced Thomas Aquinas, Francis of Assisi, Copernicus and Martin Luther). You call our spirituality “stifling” and you claim that the church wants to keep women “in their place” ( a claim that’s hard to take seriously when the women in question (LCWR) run multi-million dollar organizations). If you were alluding to the limitation of the priesthood to men, I hope your not too upset with Jesus for picking 12 guys for his apostles. He didn’t seem to share your feminist insistence on gender indifferentism. Men and women are different. We have different gifts, different vocations, different biology. My church believes that the priest stands in persona christi. As such the priest must be a man, but men can’t be mothers. Is that difference “idiotic” or “laughable” too?
      When I was younger I visited a friend’s hometown in southern Indiana and saw the machine gun bullet damage on her elementary school from a Ku Klux Klan attack in the ’20s. We’ve come a long way from there but “dueling” even with words is not my preferred approach. John Wesley could appreciate the work of Catholic monk .Thomas a’ Kempis’s “Imitation of Christ”. My favorite hymn is “Amazing Grace” which has lyrics that are quite Evangelical. Please share with me what you find good about your experience so we all can learn from each other.

  8. Denis Eble

    Nick – I am set back on my heels with your choice of the word ‘Magisterium.’ Wow! I haven’t heard that word since my theology classes decades ago. I believe that I laughed back then at the pomposity of the concept. Jesus, I suspect, would weep at what The Church has created in his name.

    I asked a simple question in my previous comment but I can’t seem to find the answer in anything you wrote. I’ll keep looking.

    Regarding the millions of former Catholics who no longer practice their faith, here is a section from the Pew Research Forum in March of this year:

    “over the past four decades, self-reported church attendance has declined among “strong” Catholics as well as among Catholics overall. The share of all Catholics who say they attend Mass at least once a week has dropped from 47% in 1974 to 24% in 2012; among “strong” Catholics, it has fallen more than 30 points, from 85% in 1974 to 53% last year.”

    Why would that be happening to the Catholic Church? What is driving them away? I’ve got several ideas from the people in my circle of friends. My adult children also know as do their circle of friends.

    I am happy, Nick, that you find that the Catholic Church meets your spiritual needs. That must be comforting.

    Our pastor wisely predicted some 25 years ago that he expected to see the church divide into two branches, conservative and progressive. He figured that Catholics would choose one of the two. What he did not foresee was the 3rd possibility-neither.

    What is your prediction for the future of the American Catholic Church for the rest of this decade?

  9. nickbatt

    Denis; Aw c’mon. I would really appreciate it if you could tone down the language. “Pomposity” and “Jesus would I suspect weep” are just unnecessarily harsh. You don”t know me well enough to dislike me. That usually takes, at least, a couple face to face meetings. lol. Since you’ve taken theology classes and I only grade school catechism, I am at a loss to see what you find so humorous about my use of the term “Magisterium”. It’s a perfectly respectable latin word. My last post was already long and I see no point in adding a complete discussion of the term which goes back to the 3rd century.
    As you must know, church attendance among all denominations has been declining and the percentage of non-believers increasing. We do indeed live in an evil time but your quote from the Pew Center does not support your claim that the reason for the decline among Catholics has to do with an unsatisfying spiritual experience or a “stifling” church. in the US. Nor does it explain the explosion of many Christian denominations in other parts of the world.
    You seem to draw your own opinions from your and your children’s personal acquaintances. I can only suggest that you broaden your circles. I know many lapsed Catholics who attend a local evangelical church that would share your views. In polling that’s called a self selection bias. Of course, people who’ve left the Catholic Church will see their path as one of finding a “nbetter spirituality

  10. nickbatt

    oops. A “better” spirituality.
    FInally, I find the terms conservative and progressive (which are usually applied to political matters) inapplicable to religious matters. My prediction for the Church’s future (I do not claim to be a prophet) is that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it Matt 16:18

  11. nickbatt

    Denis; Having found your antipathy towards the Catholic Church hierarchy puzzling, I did some checking http://www.toledoblade.com/Religion/2012/05/22/Toledo-Catholics-march-in-support-of-nuns.html
    I’m sure you loved your sister. Please know that none of my comments were directed towards her. You have my condolences on your loss.

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