Pope Francis' appointment of Michigan Bishop Bernard Hebda to serve alongside John J. Myers as coadjutor archbishop of Newark might have been the first time the Vatican acted to discipline a bishop for dealing improperly with sexually abusive priests since John Paul II accepted Bernard Law's resignation as archbishop of Boston in 2002. Coadjutors are often appointed when the Vatican wants to make clear its displeasure with a hierarch (e.g. the case of Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle).
But Law was given fancy quarters and high responsibilities in Rome, so "discipline" hardly seems like the right word. As for Myers, he insisted yesterday that he had requested a coadjutor "some time ago," so the 72-year-old martinet will presumably slide into retirement with his face saved, regardless of what the rest of the world thinks.
Myers' troubles this year began with the revelation that Michael Fugee, a priest under court order not to minister to minors, had been ministering to minors. Then documents released in a $1.35 million abuse settlement by the diocese of Peoria suggested that when Myers was bishop there he had failed to take steps against the abuser.
Last month, in what might have been the last straw, Myers circulated an angry letter to the priests and laity of his archdiocese exonerating himself of all wrongdoing and anathematizing his accusers. "For any who set out to claim that I or the Church have had no effective part in the love and protection of children, is simply evil, wrong, immoral, and seemingly focused on their own self-aggrandizement," Myers wrote. "God only knows their personal reasons and agenda. We are still called to love them. And God will surely address them in due time."
Hebda is by all accounts a very smart and talented cleric, and his appointment will help restore some moral credibility to the Catholic leadership in New Jersey, which is gearing up to oppose an assisted suicide bill currently working its way through the state legislature. But unless and until Rome takes definitive and unambiguous action against bishops who cover up sexual abuse, its own moral credibility will remain in question.
As Michael Sean Winters points out, the place to act is Kansas City, where one year ago Robert Finn became the first American bishop to be convicted of the crime of failing to report a suspected abusive priest. His case is more-cut-and-dried than Myers'. The scandal increases every day he remains in office.