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.”
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.