Why was Bishop Holley removed? Another failed transparency test.

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 25, 2018

Pope Francis has removed an American bishop from office. There’s just one problem: We don’t know what the story is.

The Vatican announcement, released on October 24, reads thus:

The Holy Father Francis has removed from the pastoral care of the diocese of Memphis, United States of America, H.E. Msgr. Martin D. Holley, and 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.

That’s all we’ve been told. Apparently Bishop Holley did not resign. (According to unconfirmed reports he flatly refused to do so.) He was ousted, in a rare display of papal power.

Why? What had Bishop Holley done, that made it seem imperative for the Pope to remove him?

Christopher Altieri asks that question, in article of Catholic World Report. But he can only suggest possible answers, because like the rest of us, he doesn’t have the facts.

There are plenty of curious aspects to this case; the few facts that we do know supply ample opportunities for speculation:

  • Bishop Holley came to Memphis from his earlier post as an auxiliary bishop of Washington, DC. He was regarded as a protégé of former cardinal McCarrick.
  • When he was installed in Memphis, only two years ago, Bishop Holley asked all the pastors of the diocese to submit their resignations. He then proceeded to transfer 75% of them, drawing a chorus of complaints about his management style.
  • As his vicar general, Bishop Holley brought in a priest from outside the diocese—from Canada, in fact—Msgr. Clement Machado, who had a background as an exorcist.
  • Earlier this year the Vatican sent two American archbishops to Memphis to conduct an apostolic visitation, evidently in response to mounting concerns about the leadership of the diocese. Immediately after that visitation, Msgr. Machado resigned, saying that he wanted to pursue advanced studies.

Mix and match those few facts, add a generous dollop of speculation, and you should be able to concoct at least a half-dozen plausible theories. Was Bishop Holley caught up in the McCarrick scandal? Did the priests of Memphis rebel against him? Was Msgr. Machado the source of the trouble? Had he discovered something sinister in the diocese—some reason for sweeping changes? Was there some other sort of scandal? Someone acting irrationally? Someone mismanaging the diocesan finances? Any one (or two, or three) of those possibilities would match up with the few available facts.

We just don’t know. Ordinarily that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. As the late Michael Novak observed, just because you’re on the Barque of Peter doesn’t mean that you need to know everything that’s happening in the engine room. But these are not ordinary times. These are times when lay Catholics are looking suspiciously at the entire hierarchy. As Altieri points out, it’s important that justice be done, but it’s also important—particularly in times of unrest—that “justice must be seen to be done.”

It’s quite possible that justice was done in the case of Bishop Holley. But we don’t know that. And frankly, given what we have learned in the past few months, we’re no longer ready to assume that.

If Bishop Holley did something wrong, he should be held accountable; it should be clear that he was ousted because of his misdeeds. If he did nothing wrong—if he was removed simply because he is a poor administrator—that too could be conveyed gently to the public, so that he is not exposed to speculation about grave moral failings.

For years the Vatican has announced the resignations of bishops with a terse reference to Canon 401-2, which allows for a bishop to step down in case of illness “or other grave reason.” Because no further explanation is proffered, the public does not know whether the departing bishop is the innocent victim of some debilitating disease or the guilty party in some flagrant scandal.

Again, in ordinary times it might not be terribly important for lay Catholics to know a retiring bishop is innocent or guilty; in any case we should pray for him. But when we know that corruption is widespread, the distinction becomes critical. A bishop who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease might leave his diocese in excellent condition, whereas a bishop who has been seducing seminarians has probably left a trail of destruction. In the one case the diocese only needs another capable leader; in the other, it needs a thorough cleansing.

Transparency and accountability; accountability and transparency. These are the time-honored means of restoring credibility to an institution that has lost public trust. We hear the words often these days from Church leaders. But will we ever see more than the words? Will we actually see accountability and transparency in practice? That, too, is something we just don’t know.

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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  • Posted by: [email protected] - Oct. 31, 2018 10:32 PM ET USA

    The removal of Bishop Holley demands transparency. There is no more trust in the Vatican hierarchy and quite frankly the Pope. He needs to be honest with the Church which is us. This continued lack of transparency just breeds more suspicion and lack of trust.

  • Posted by: feedback - Oct. 25, 2018 10:17 PM ET USA

    The main problem is that Francis surrounded himself very tightly with untrustworthy "friends" and advisors. However, the removal of a 63-year old diocesan bishop is a matter grave enough for the universal Church to be followed by some explanation to the faithful.