Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

After the McCarrick Report, an odd episcopal appointment

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 09, 2020

What’s wrong with this picture?

Vision Book Cover Prints
  • Last month the Vatican released the long-awaited McCarrick Report, providing some (but not all) details about the clerical culture that protected the former cardinal, and serial abuser, Theodore McCarrick.
  • Last week Pope Francis named Bishop Michael Fisher, an auxiliary of the Washington, DC archdiocese, to head the Diocese of Buffalo.
  • The Buffalo diocese has been battered for months by legal charges involving cover-ups of sexual abuse.
  • Bishop Fisher comes from the archdiocese that McCarrick once headed, and served on the chancery staff under the disgraced former cardinal. He was ordained as a bishop by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who resigned after accusations that he had covered up for McCarrick—and covered up for other clerics during a previous assignment as Bishop of Pittsburgh.

Do you see a problem here? I do.

Please understand that I not making any accusations against Bishop Fisher. I have no reason to believe that he was involved in any cover-ups. But as the spin-control experts in Washington might say, the “optics” of this appointment are… odd. The Buffalo diocese is in deep trouble, over the handling of the sex-abuse scandal. As the leader of this diocese, the Vatican has chosen a bishop from—a diocese that it is deep trouble over the handling of the sex-abuse scandal.

And this isn’t the first time. Last July I questioned the appointment of Bishop Mark Brennan to head the troubled Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia. Bishop Brennan has made my concerns seem foolish, as I will explain below. Yet I still wonder whether Vatican officials understood the dangers involved in appointing that particular bishop to that particular diocese.

Recall that in 2018, McCarrick was brought to disgrace by public revelations of his sexual misconduct. Public confidence in the Vatican was also damaged, as it became clear that officials in Rome had been made aware of the sex-abuse charges but chose not to investigate them—quite possibly because McCarrick had been lavish with his monetary gifts to other members of the hierarchy.

Since that time, the Vatican has twice been called upon to make sensitive appointments to American dioceses whose bishops had left under a cloud: in Wheeling-Charleston and in Buffalo. In each case the problems were closely related to the problems in the McCarrick dossier: the free flow of money and the failure to report sexual abuse. Yet in each case the Vatican chose, as the new bishop, a cleric from the Washington archdiocese that was the epicenter of the McCarrick scandal.

For years McCarrick was acknowledged as the leading “kingmaker” of the American hierarchy: the prelate who wielded the most influence over episcopal appointments in this country. He was replaced in that role by his successor in Washington, Cardinal Wuerl. So it is not surprising that priests from Washington have been chosen as bishops. What is surprising, in light of the McCarrick scandal, is that priests from Washington are still being promoted—and indeed assigned to the dioceses where they are most likely to encounter skepticism about the Church’s commitment to reform.

Years ago, before the sex-abuse scandal erupted, a friend who is a keen observer of Church affairs told me that he had developed a theory. When a new bishop is appointed, he is given instructions from Rome about what will be expected of him. Specifically, my friend suggested, perhaps he is told “which bodies are to stay buried.”

This is a cynical theory, I will readily admit. But the revelations of recent years encourage cynicism. And there is at least circumstantial evidence to support my friend’s theory. How often has a newly installed bishop gone out of his way to praise his predecessor, even after that predecessor’s misconduct has been in the headlines? Or look at the matter from the opposite direction: Has a new bishop ever denounced the man he replaced?

There are a few case studies to consider. In 2013, Archbishop Jose Gomez, two years into his leadership of the Los Angeles archdiocese, relieved his predecessor, Cardinal Roger Mahony, of all public duties, after reading “brutal and painful?” reports on the cardinal’s mishandling of sex-abuse complaints. But then a funny thing happened. Cardinal Mahony continued to make public appearances, the new archbishop’s directives to the contrary notwithstanding. The Vatican threw its support to the cardinal, making him a papal representative for ceremonial occasions. And seven years later Archbishop Gomez, the head of the nation’s largest archdiocese, has not received a red hat.

That incident weighs in favor of my friend’s theory, doesn’t it? But a more recent incident corrects the balance.

Just over a year ago, I called attention to a development that was—at least to the best of my recollection—completely unprecedented: “For the first time, an American bishop denounced his predecessor for gross misconduct, demanded an apology, and sought restitution for victims from the offending prelate.” The hero in this case was none other than Bishop Brennan, who asked for his free-spending predecessor, Bishop Michael Bransfield, to repay $800,000 to the diocesan treasury.

Bishop Brennan apparently “gets it,” and I hope Bishop Fisher does, too. Yet I still question whether the Vatican recognizes the urgent need to restore public confidence in episcopal appointments—whether officials in Rome understand that when a diocese is damaged by corruption, the best solution might not be a bishop from a diocese damaged by corruption.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: JimK01 - Dec. 13, 2020 1:17 PM ET USA

    “Do you see a problem here? I do.” The problem I see is reporters writing about McCarrick & other Cardinals, Bishops, etc., citing their “misdeeds, disgrace, sexual mis-conduct, mis-handling of sex abuse cases, gross misconduct, free spending” etc. WHY NOT PROPERLY NAME THEIR SINS AND CRIMES? Bishop Brennan “demanded and apology and sought restitution from the offending prelate” for his theft and embezzlement? Isn’t this just minimizing his actions? Gimme a break! Start calling a spade a spade!

  • Posted by: feedback - Dec. 11, 2020 10:54 AM ET USA

    "Bad optics" means creating suspicion and potential for a scandal. Four of Chicago priests who recently became bishops come from the class of 1994, which is the class of the notorious pedophile Daniel McCormack. According to reports, McCormack was already known for drinking problems and engaging in homosexual acts while in the seminary "formation." Seminarians are required to evaluate each other's suitability for ordination. How did the four evaluate McCormack before he got ordained? And why?