Monday, July 31, 2006

His Old Kentucky Home

As many of you know -- and some of you have queried about -- Archbishop Thomas Kelly OP of Louisville, the second-longest serving US metropolitan, recently marked his 75th birthday and sent the requisite letter of resignation to Rome.

Having served at the helm of one of the oldest American dioceses since 1982, the road to Kelly's successor has aroused more than the usual breakout of hives and jitters among his clergy and faithful.

The archbishop sat with the Courier-Journal for a reflection on his stewardship of the 200,000-member archdiocese:

Once the Vatican has decided on a new head for the archdiocese, Kelly hopes to spend a year at a residence owned by his Dominican religious order in Washington, D.C.

"It's always been the practice for the retiring bishop to get out of Dodge for a while" as the new bishop gets established, he said.

After a year, Kelly said, he'll ask the new archbishop for permission to return to Louisville, perhaps to live with fellow Dominicans at St. Louis Bertrand Church

Kelly said the archdiocese is only beginning to emerge from "four torturous years" of confronting the sexual abuse of minors by priests and now has an extensive system of training and screening employees and volunteers.

Louisville was one of the hardest-hit dioceses in the United States when the crisis erupted worldwide in 2002 and 2003.

The archdiocese was sued by more than 250 plaintiffs; nine priests were removed from ministry, and four were convicted of abuse-related charges. To date, the archdiocese has paid nearly $30 million in settlements and in legal and medical bills.

"Nobody, I think, was really well prepared for the extent of the problem: the impact, the harm and injury that could be done to people," Kelly said. "And I have to admit to my own absolute incredulousness that such a thing could be prevalent here and I not know about it. It took a couple of kicks to make me understand the extent of the difficulty."

Although Kelly said he didn't know the extent of the abuse, he was very much aware of its existence.

For most of his tenure, until bishops adopted a zero-tolerance policy in 2002, Kelly allowed some priests to remain in ministry after learning they had abused children, according to internal church documents released during litigation.

"I regret that so much," Kelly said. "I did that with the approval of (mental-health) professionals."

When asked whether those priests could be reassigned, therapists said they could, Kelly said.

But his decisions have been difficult for victims and their families, said Michael Turner, who was a plaintiff against the archdiocese.

"I think we need somebody new in here to let the church heal itself some more," he said. "There are still a lot of people with a lot of hurt."

A parallel piece also ran on the succession.

Given Benedict's reputation before becoming pope as the Vatican's doctrinal enforcer, his high-profile appointments since becoming pope last year have been "strikingly pastoral," said John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.

"Some people were expecting Benedict would pick bishops who would steer the church sharply to the right," he said. "To date we haven't seen that."...

"These are not liberals," Allen said of the new appointees. "But these are people who are not ideologues. They are open, very concerned with people, typically not overly political in their approach to things."

Reese said most Catholic bishops, although politically conservative in some areas, "are to the left of liberal Democrats" in others, such as opposition to capital punishment, the Iraq war and crackdowns on immigrants.

Which reminds me of one bishop's recent memorable quote: "'You have something to learn here,' he said. 'You have something to learn here, and it's the Gospel.'"

It's a keen summation of B16's appointments to date.