Monday, March 12, 2007

From the "Bishops Matter" Desk

In Big D, the Morning News wraps the first week of Farrellmania with a take on the influence the incoming bishop will have, drawing from examples both far and nigh:
On paper, the bishop has a powerful job. He places the priests, determines how the money is spent, approves all instructional material, creates or closes parishes and schools, and can be the most public spokesman for Catholicism in his area. A bishop can even decide who gets to be buried in Catholic cemeteries.

Surveys say that even many Catholics who consider themselves faithful feel free to disagree with the pope. Catholic clergy face a particularly uphill battle against the lingering taint of the priest sex abuse scandal. And in a diocese with almost a million Catholics, most won't get much face time with the man at the top.

"A very small percentage of Catholics could name a bishop outside their immediate city, and a great number of Catholics could not name the bishop in their own diocese," said Timothy Muldoon, director of The Church in the 21st Century Center at Boston College.

A bishop's power, however, is comparable to a CEO's. Employees who may not know the name of the top boss will feel the effects of his decisions.

A bishop can decide if anyone – even another bishop – is welcome to speak at a church in his jurisdiction. He can decree the physical design of churches. He can decide to excommunicate members or to deny them sacraments of the church. And some practices followed by one bishop may not match those in another diocese.

Unless the bishop is caught committing a crime or in a public violation of essential church teachings, the Vatican rarely steps in. And for faithful Catholics, the bishop is more than just another boss; he's an important representative of Christ on Earth.

But power is not the same as influence. Can a bishop change people's behaviors? Can he affect their spiritual lives?

That's hard to measure, said Mike Sullivan, vice president of the traditionalist Catholics United for the Faith, a national lay organization.

"You can't quantify the results for a spiritual reality," he said. "We can't assess it the way we assess how good a quarterback is on whatever team we follow."

But he said that a new bishop can make a visible difference: In Denver, where Archbishop Charles Chaput took over in 1997, the number of religious orders and the total membership in those orders has increased, Mr. Sullivan said.
(...and that ain't all.)
The Boston Archdiocese offers more evidence that members pay attention to who is in charge. Boston's former archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law, took much of the blame for mishandling abusive priests under his supervision. A story in last week's Boston Globe detailed the falloff in donations under Cardinal Law and a steady rebuilding of the donations since Cardinal Sean O'Malley took over in 2003.

Some experts say that another measure of influence is the number of men in the diocese who are seeking to become priests. One study indicates that the beliefs of the bishop matter, said Andrew Yuengert, an economics professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.

"What I found was that bishops who seemed to be more traditional seemed to have higher numbers of ordinances," he said.

A bishop is the most visible priest in a diocese, so his "sales pitch" is important to young men who are being asked to commit their lives to the priesthood. A bishop who emphasizes the uniquely religious aspects of the job may be more effective than a bishop whose vision of the priesthood leans more toward sanctified social work, Dr. Yuengert said.
Meanwhile, across the Rockies and the Wasatch, excitement's building for Wednesday's installation of Levada firstborn Bishop John Wester in Salt Lake City.

The former San Francisco auxiliary has long enjoyed an outsize prominence among the brethren, evidenced anew by a last-minute ballooning in the number of attending hierarchs; the initial estimate of 30 is now over 45, and two red-hats are now planning to show, with McCarrick joining Mahony at the top of the list. (Speaking of everyone's favorite globetrotting goodwill ambassador-cum-archbishop-emeritus of Washington, Uncle Ted's just accepted a counselor's slot at a top DC think-tank.)

In the local Trib, Peggy Fletcher Stack dropped an impressive weekend package, with a personal look at Utah's ninth bishop...
Perhaps it is a godsend that he is color-blind. Viewing the pageantry that way might mute the effect of purple-robed bishops, throngs of well-wishers, multicolored banners and light streaming through the Spanish-style cathedral's gorgeous stained-glass windows - all focused on him.

Whatever the day or the role holds, those who have known Wester longest say it won't change the man. He'll still be just John....

"Religion was always a positive and healthy thing in our house," Wester says. His parents and especially his grandmother had "a good pastoral instinct about how to apply rules in a humane and balanced way."

Wester remembers being moved by the film "Miracle of Marcelino," which tells how an orphan boy raised by Franciscan monks discovers Christ.

"It was my first conscious memory of perceiving that God communicates with us in a real way," he says.

In sixth grade, Wester had a "premonition" that he would become a priest. "The priests I had growing up were good men," he says. "I was impressed by them and all they did for people. It looked like a life I wanted to lead."...

Wester worked as an educator until 1988, when then-Archbishop John Quinn tapped him to be his administrative assistant. Later, he would do the same for his successor, William Levada.

His superiors would call on the same skills again and again, says Annabelle Groh, Wester's own assistant. "There was such a variety of areas he had in hand, yet he still managed to do it all with patience, diligence and attention to detail. It was a pleasure to work for him."

On June 30, 1998, 10 years after assisting Quinn, Wester became an auxiliary bishop. The 45-year-old cleric stood before a packed cathedral, looked out and said into the microphone, "Wow."
...a summary of his role in handling San Francisco's post-scandal difficulties:
For more than 90 minutes, Wester listened as [victim-survivors] railed against the church, expressing feelings of anger and betrayal. In the end, Wester and some of the victims formed a group called "No More Secrets" that continues to meet monthly.

Some victims saw the episode as opening an important avenue of communication; others were less impressed.

Wester “consistently dodged our main requests [regarding] legislative reform and voluntary disclosure to prosecutors,” says David Clohessey, national president of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), who was there that day. “He's very, very shrewd, especially at public relations.”

Thus began the San Francisco church's four-year effort to address the problem of sexual abuse within its ranks. Eventually, there were 175 lawsuits and $72.8 million in payments to victims. Two cases went to trial, and the church lost both times.

Wester, in particular, has spent the past few years reaching out to victims, priests and everyone in-between. As expected, not everyone has been pleased with his approach.

“Bishop Wester has a proven policy of shielding accused priests ahead of that of shielding innocent children who may be in harm's way,” says Joey Piscitelli, who won one of the lawsuits, in an e-mail. “No pleading by victims to remove accused priests under Wester ever was successful for the four years I have met with Wester.”

Wester himself realized that many victims couldn't stand to be in the same room with a bishop but forced themselves to do it so they could express their feelings.

"What could I say? My position was just to listen. Sexual abuse is shredding a soul, devastating to a person," he says.

Wester attended both trials, for example, so that the victims would see him and not the church's empty chair.

"He's a very compassionate man, and the victims came to respect him," says Barbara Elordi, victim advocate for the archdiocese. "I don't know of any other bishop who would do that."
...and a check-in with Wester's predecessor and Wednesday's installing prelate, Archbishop George Niederauer of San Francisco:
The new assignment isn't all that different from what he did in Utah.

"There are more meetings to go to, more boards and commissions, and sometimes they last longer," Niederauer says. "We deal with the same kinds of questions and issues, but with different emphases."

In a wide-ranging interview, Niederauer reflected on his first year as archbishop, the differences between his old and new homes, and the challenges that face him. He returns to Utah on Wednesday to participate in the installation of his successor as Salt Lake City's Catholic leader - Bishop John Wester, who coincidentally has served as Niederauer's auxiliary bishop in San Francisco.
Utahns might be surprised to learn that their former bishop earned a reputation as "gay-friendly" during his time in the Beehive State. It is based on the fact that he refused to blame the church's sex-abuse scandal on homosexuality, wasn't in favor of barring all gay men from seminaries and didn't support Utah's amendment to ban same-sex marriage. His were nuanced positions, but Bay Area conservative Catholics were wary....

Within months of his installation, Niederauer faced the question of what to do with Catholic Charities' adoption program, a problem first raised by Levada. State law prohibited any agency from discriminating on the basis of sex, meaning same-sex couples had to be considered on par with heterosexual couples. Catholic teachings oppose placing children with gay couples.

With the help of Catholic Charities/CYO (Catholic Youth Organization), Niederauer worked out a compromise. The church discontinued its adoption program, but provided some personnel and resources to California Kids Connection, an Internet service that helps families, including gays, find and adopt children.

"The Lord works in mysterious ways," San Francisco Supervisor Bevan Dufty, a gay Jew who was a consultant to Catholic Charities, told the Chronicle. "In the interests of the children and for prospective parents, this will be a great improvement. Two years from now, we will look back and see what a big step this was in getting children placed."

Schlitt says his boss handled the situation "very deftly," but it didn't satisfy conservatives.
Just a reminder that Wednesday's installation -- Mahony, Mormons, Madeleine choir and all -- will be livestreamed on the site of the diocesan paper, the Intermountain Catholic, which has already chimed in with a load of impressive coverage... including an interview with a Wester friend whose last name is Bertone.

No, not that Bertone. But given the Ratzi-Levada connection, that, too, would make sense, eh?