Vatican watchers looking for the “Pope Francis effect”Written by David Yonke Editor, ToledoFAVS.com | | David.Yonke@ReligionNews.com
Vatican watchers looking for the “Pope Francis effect” in church reforms did not see it in Toledo Bishop Leonard Blair’s appointment as archbishop of Hartford, CT, announced Tuesday (Oct. 29).
Bob Mickens, a Toledo native and journalist who has been covering the Vatican for 27 years, said in an interview from Rome that while Francis has spoken out against “careerist” bishops who aspire to larger dioceses, Blair’s promotion is “just more of the same. It’s clear that the same old ‘old-boys network’ is at work.”
Advocates for clerical sexual abuse victims also questioned Francis’ decision.
“It’s heartbreaking to see a pope who many consider ‘groundbreaking’ continue the long, painful Vatican practice of promoting complicit and compromised bishops,” said David Clohessy, executive director of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests).
Claudia Vercellotti of Toledo SNAP said she sees “no congruency between the vision that Pope Francis puts forward and his actions here in Toledo, Ohio. Either Pope Francis is asleep at the wheel and has no idea who he’s promoted, or he is ambivalent. Either way, it’s dangerous.”
In contrast, Vatican correspondent Rocco Palma sees Blair as a good fit for Hartford because the Connecticut archdiocese needs a leader with keen managerial skills.
Palma, who writes the “Whispers in the Loggia” blog, said the 700,000-member Hartford archdiocese is beset with “an aging infrastructure and shifting demographics” that “will require no shortage of tough calls over the tenure to come.”
He said Blair, 64, honed his managerial abilities while serving as secretary to the now-retired Cardinal Edmund Szoka when the cardinal headed the Vatican’s economic affairs department and was governor of Vatican City.
Among the financial moves Blair made after coming to Toledo in December, 2003, was the closing of 17 parishes and the merging of 16 others in 2005 and the layoff of 11 full-time staff members in 2004 due to a budget shortfall.
He also pulled $117 million in diocese investments out of local brokerages in 2004 and moved the money to Detroit, saying it would yield a better return.
Also in 2004, the diocese paid $1.9 million to settle lawsuits with 23 people who said they were abused as children by priests, deacons or other church personnel.
Blair is widely regarded for his expertise on doctrine and dogma, as evidenced in his 2009 Vatican assignment to assess the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a group that represents 80 percent of America’s 57,000 Catholic nuns.
He is also a member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ committee on doctrine. Among that panel’s efforts was a 2009 investigation of Reiki, a holistic therapy involving the massaging of “life energy.” After the panel found Reiki “inconsistent with Christian teaching,” Blair barred its practice in the diocese — without consulting practitioners, including many nuns who had practiced it for decades.
The new pope, meanwhile, is urging priests and bishops to emphasize their pastoral roles over the enforcement of doctrine.
“It’s not clear to me if Francis has been able to get a handle on the appointment of bishops yet,” Mickens said. “Certainly the people in the Congregation for Bishops who are presenting the appointments and suggesting who will be appointed are not following the indications of who the pope would pick.”
He said Blair is “a careerist, no doubt, and he’s made a lot of friends in Rome over the years, especially while he was here studying and working.”
Mickens believes Blair’s promotion is linked to his role in the Vatican-ordered LCWR assessment.
“Many times those who take on these sort of ‘hatchet jobs’ for the Holy See are rewarded with promotions,” Mickens said.
Vercellotti, while acknowledging Blair walked into a “mess” when he arrived in Toledo, faulted his handling of numerous controversies, including treatment of abuse victims and parishioners whose churches were shuttered. She pointed out that prosecutors had to use search warrants to obtain church files on Toledo priest Gerald Robinson, who was convicted in 2006 of murdering a nun, and that Blair should have pushed to have Robinson defrocked.
“If you want to get out of the hole that was dug, you put the shovel down and stop digging. Instead, Bishop Blair picked up the shovel and dug double-time,” Vercellotti said. “He had an opportunity to end the suffering of so many who have been devastated by the ongoing clergy sexual abuse scandal, but he just dug the hole deeper.”
Blair will be installed as archbishop of Hartford on Dec. 16. Until a successor is named in Toledo, an administrator will be appointed to oversee the diocese.
David Yonke is the editor and community manager of Toledo Faith & Values (ToledoFAVS.com), a website that provides in-depth, nonsectarian news coverage of religion, faith and spirituality in the Toledo area.
Tags: Archbishop Hartford, Bob Mickens, Claudia Vercellotti, Congregation for Bishops, Detroit, Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Pope Francis, SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), Toledo Bishop Leonard Blair, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Vatican, Vatican City