Tuesday, September 24, 2013

For Newark, Enter Bernie... For the Bench, Enter Francis

For all the smiles at the cameras and talk of a smooth transition, the difference between Newark Catholicism's present and future can be boiled down to this: while John Myers prefers to be addressed as "His Grace" – the British/Canadian style for archbishops – whatever title his successor might be saddled with, the next metropolitan of New Jersey will forever be known to all as, simply, "Bernie." 

The mottoes are instructive, too: the incumbent chose for himself the refined, maybe even esoteric "Mysterium ecclesiae luceat" ("Let the mystery of the church shine forth"), a reference to the Vatican II constitution Lumen Gentium. His coadjutor's is straightforward and in English – two words: "Only Jesus."

Shot into the stratosphere as shepherd-in-waiting of the nation's ninth-largest diocese, Bernie Hebda's ascent to North Jersey has been described as "the first truly Francis appointment" on these shores: a distinctly pastoral, nonideological figure with a penchant for sharp ideas, hard work, close ties and creating oceans of goodwill across all sorts of divides.

Even on a normal day, Newark is one of the most complex and intense Stateside dioceses to run. Yet with the added high-wire at hand, all the nominee's qualities are set to come even more to the fore.

A former priest-secretary to Washington's Cardinal Donald Wuerl – who has quietly emerged as a key Stateside figure in Francis' orbit over recent months – the Pittsburgh-born Hebda is being sent in to quell a firestorm following months of damaging claims that Myers neglected to sufficiently supervise a priest who remained in ministry despite the cleric's admission to fondling a 14 year-old boy. Then again, perhaps Francis himself explained the coadjutor's mission ahead even more clearly in his interview with Antonio Spadaro SJ: "to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful."

Driven by a steady stream of blistering coverage in the local Star-Ledger, the storm began in February, after Fr Michael Fugee was named director of the archdiocesan office of Continuing Education for Priests 12 years after admitting to the misconduct with a minor. In late May, after the cleric was found to have violated a court agreement by continuing to work with young people, the role of the archdiocese – likewise a party to the deal which averted further prosecution against Fugee after his 2003 criminal trial fell apart on a technicality – came under even greater scrutiny, resulting in Myers' removal of his vicar-general. At the same time, the youth ministers who allowed Fugee to engage with kids under their supervision – both former employees of the Newark Chancery – were fired, the pastor of the parish where the events occurred was placed on leave, and Fugee resigned from active ministry shortly before his arrest for flouting the court deal; he was subsequently freed on bail.

A further onslaught came last month, when Myers' native diocese of Peoria, which he led from 1990-2001, settled a lawsuit for $1.35 million. The case centered on a priest there (now deceased) who continued to abuse after allegations were received by the now-archbishop. In a 2010 deposition for the suit, Myers attributed the confusion to inadequate record-keeping, but admitted to receiving gifts including rare coins and a prized camera from the accused cleric, who was made a monsignor after the complaints against him were levied. Following the settlement, the mother of the victim called for the archbishop "to go to jail," terming him a "predator" at a press conference organized by survivors' groups in front of the Newark offices. 

Even as the media was thronged inside today, a handful of protestors were gathered again outside the Chancery during the morning press conference. One of the group went to far as to mock Myers' preferred moniker by carrying a sign that read "From His Grace to Disgrace."

A figure of considerable clout in Rome as chairman of the board of the Pontifical North American College – where his eventual successor likewise studied and later served as a spiritual director alongside his Curia job – the archbishop responded in a variety of forums, from a May YouTube video on the archdiocesan website to a Catholic press interview in which Myers said that Fugee's admission to groping the boy was a "mistake" the cleric had made "because he was tired" after hours of interrogation by police.

The most prominent defense, however, became an August letter to priests in which the archbishop charged his critics with being "simply evil, wrong, immoral and only focused on their self-aggrandizement," adding that "God will surely address them in due time."

One of the American hierarchy's leading conservatives for two decades – a onetime EWTN host who penned a controversial pastoral letter on marriage to coincide with his 25th anniversary in the episcopacy – the archbishop went on to muse over whether the stinging focus on him was based on "animus against our Roman Catholic Faith and its Teachings... of which I have always been a staunch and outspoken supporter despite their 'unpopularity' in the secular and 'politically correct' society that has developed around us?" 

In a more recent riposte to the Star-Ledger, the longtime archdiocesan spokesman, Jim Goodness, accused the paper of turning a blind eye to "the financial gains, agendas, backgrounds, lives, and lifestyles of the detractors whom you have been regularly featuring as so-called 'protectors of children,'" challenging the daily to publish an "investigative piece" on the chorus calling for Myers' head.

But it's not the critics in print who can prod a selection process into motion. And as the developments turned uglier and the defenses became more heated, among the American hierarchy, their name became legion. 
Put another way, having written a 2008 science-fiction novel with his boyhood best friend, the storyline must've felt eerily familiar for Myers: justly or not, the long trail of decisions past had suddenly converged, creating a monster he could no longer control.

Beyond the continuing drip of ugly press in the US' largest media market, the story's endurance raised hackles elsewhere in New Jersey as complaints circulated that – in what was already one of the nation's most secularized states – the Newark situation was complicating the church's efforts to fight a bill extending the statute of limitations on civil abuse suits, as well as a fresh push to legalize same-sex marriage in the Garden State.

Though a bill to redefine marriage already passed the legislature in a prior session, it was vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie, a Catholic Republican, who has called for a ballot referendum on the question. New Jersey currently permits civil unions for gay couples, which confer all state benefits of marriage.

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The move for a Newark coadjutor is significant on numerous fronts: beyond representing Francis' most consequential US personnel-choice to date – both in terms of the archdiocese's size and Rome's tackling of a high-visibility crisis situation – the speed of the appointment represents a marked shift from prior practice. Instead of the standard months-long search process, the first indications that Myers would receive an early successor only began circulating within the last month, reflecting the case's priority as well as the new Pope's willingness to move quickly, guided by the advice of his own channels.

For his part, Myers said today that he had requested a coadjutor "some time ago" in light of his increasing age and that of two of his four auxiliary bishops, as well as several long-frame initiatives for the life of the Newark church. Even when they are made, however, petitions for a coadjutor are routinely denied by Rome and usually only granted in the presence of exceptional circumstances. 

The archbishop sought to categorically refute any connection between the recent torrent and the early appointment of his successor, but declined to elaborate on the nature and timing of his "conversations with Rome." Citing Christ's command to "pray for those who persecute you," Myers added that the media remained in his prayers.

As for the nominee, much as the choice is a surprise, it's just as formidable of a pick. After being at Wuerl's side while the now-cardinal waged a years-long battle against the Vatican's supreme court, the Apostolic Signatura, to secure the removal of an abusive Pittsburgh priest, Hebda became the latest of several clerics from Steeler Country to impress the Rome crowd with his smarts and diligence, and just as much for an obvious lack of interest in becoming a lifer in the Curia. (The most prominent Pittsburgher of the same mould – now Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston – passed the Council ring he wore as a bishop to Hebda.)

After 13 years at the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts – half of that time as the office's undersecretary – while the top Vatican lawyer was arranging to return home for good through most of 2009, Pope Benedict had other plans. Hebda's appointment to Gaylord was announced during what was supposed to be a visit with his family; given Rome's mild temperatures relative to his hometown, the appointee arrived in Michigan without owning an overcoat. That would change quick, however – "flurries" having been forewarned, three inches of snow fell during Hebda's December 1st ordination.

Over the years since, as noted at his introduction today, he was probably "the only bishop in the country to have a deer blind in his back yard" and, along the way, "confirmed a higher percentage of 'Huberts,' all seeking the intercession of the patron saint of hunters" than any other American prelate.

Despite having escaped Rome, the place didn't forget him – when, in 2012, the Secretariat of State sought to tighten up the juridical status of Caritas Internationalis (the global umbrella-group for Catholic charitable and humanitarian organizations), Hebda was the lone American among the three prelates tapped to chart the task. As a member of Caritas' executive board, the new coadjutor has ostensibly become well acquainted with the body's president – the Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga SDB, now the coordinator of Francis' "Super 8" council of principal advisers, which will hold its inaugural meeting with the Pope next week.

All that said, the effectiveness of the new arrangement can't necessarily be dictated from across the water. While the appointment of coadjutors to salvage abuse-related situations goes back to the US' first eruption – 1985 in Louisiana's Lafayette diocese, when the New York-born Harry Flynn (now retired from the Twin Cities) was sent in to right the ship – and has long been a face-saving response to concerns over misadministration of any kind, the most recent attempt at the strategy in light of the scandals memorably, and spectacularly, failed.

That, of course, was in Dallas, where Bishop Joseph Galante was dispatched in 1999 as coadjutor to Bishop Charles Grahmann in the wake of a $117 million court judgment against the diocese for failing to protect children from a predator priest. Five years later, with the two prelates not on speaking terms and the diocese effectively split into rival camps behind each bishop, Galante sought and received a transfer elsewhere as Grahmann clung to office, only leaving after his 75th birthday in 2007.

Speaking at today's press conference, Myers indicated his intent to remain in office until he reaches the retirement age in July 2016. In the interim, the archbishop said his coadjutor would be involved in all aspects of the governance of the archdiocese.

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While the appointment returns the incoming archbishop to the East Coast for the first time since his law school days across the Hudson, for those at a distance, just to be clear, Newark isn't New York: if anything, the only proximity is geographic. 

The smallest US archdiocese by territory – all of 500 congested square miles – the four-county archdiocese encompasses an eclectic, almost chaotic mix of settings: from a see-city racked with violence and poverty to some of the country's wealthiest suburbs, key Hispanic enclaves in Union City and West New York to the gentrified extensions of Manhattan in Hoboken and Jersey City. Topping off the cake is the US' most prominent diocesan-owned university, complete with no less than three seminaries, including the largest formation house on these shores. (Over recent years, the archdiocese has routinely ordained the Stateside church's largest priesthood classes, a mark of distinction going back to the days of then-Archbishop Theodore McCarrick and ably maintained under Myers, who first made his name as a "vocations machine" in Peoria.)

Even if the key challenge of the moment overshadows the rest on the public radar, you could have the quietest media cycle possible in the church and Newark would still be an immensely difficult diocese to handle. A lot of gear-shifting's involved – and not just on being stuck in Turnpike traffic. In the only US fold to boast two NFL teams at home, one hour can find the archbishop fund-raising over lunch in Short Hills, then heading to a Brazilian street-procession in the inner city's Ironbound quarter the next, before capping the day's schedule with a visit from Cory Booker.

In Newark, that'd be a fairly normal day, to boot.

If there's one drawback here, it's that in a diocese whose population is at or near a Hispanic majority, the new arrival is limited in the language. (Portuguese has become an increasingly important local tongue as well; in 2003, Myers moved for the appointment of the US' first Brazilian-born bishop, Fr Edgar daCunha, who was named as lead vicar general in the wake of the Fugee debacle.)

Still, even the polyglot part can be worked on with time – in this case, more than most, what matters above all is the temperament. This is Jersey, after all.

Well before the controversies of late, Myers' 12-year tenure has left no shortage of locals with the lingering sense of an awkward match of prelate and place. It doesn't exactly take a sociologist to sense that a genteel rural milkman's son and gritty urban dockworkers  might not have much to bond about. In all fairness, though, to be sent to succeed the man who brought the Pope to the Meadowlands, only to be plunged into the depths even before arriving as 9/11 struck a seismic emotional and logistical blow to the region and its people, perhaps it was unavoidable that at the last go-around, the deck was stacked beyond almost anyone's grasp.

The circumstances might seem exceptional today, but they're actually a lot more normal now than they were then. City or burbs, yuppies or migrants, Giants or Jets, the thing about Newark is that it's simply a rough and tumble place: Chris Christie's hometown... and not for nothing, albeit in fiction, Tony Soprano's home diocese.

To be sure, that's not to say the Big Man who'll be the Sixth Archbishop is a mobster or a politician – indeed, he's nothing of either. It means that, for a flock known far and wide for its earthy, colorful characters, Bernie fits the bill... and if he weren't already around for Francis to pick, in this instance, they just would've had to invent him.