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Pope Francis fires Memphis bishop after Vatican investigation

Bishop Martin Holley was removed from office by Pope Francis on Oct. 24, 2018. Photo courtesy of the Catholic Diocese of Memphis

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — The Vatican announced Wednesday (Oct. 24) that Pope Francis has effectively fired the Roman Catholic bishop of Memphis. The unusual move reportedly came after Bishop Martin Holley refused to resign following a church investigation of mismanagement in the Tennessee diocese.

The action by the Vatican is another indication that the Vatican under Francis is moving, albeit fitfully, to hold bishops more accountable, and not only on issues related to sexual abuse. The Vatican’s one-line statement on Holley’s resignation said only that Holley has been “removed from pastoral governance.”

“It’s about management of the diocese, not abuse-related,” Vatican spokesman Greg Burke told CNN.

Holley, 63, was named an auxiliary, or assistant, bishop in Washington in 2004 under former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, whose canonical trial on sexual abuse allegations is going on currently at the Vatican and could lead to McCarrick’s defrocking.

After Francis sent Holley to head the Memphis Diocese in October 2016, he quickly alienated many priests and parishioners with a peremptory style of leadership. National Catholic Reporter wrote that soon after his arrival, Holley ordered the transfer of some 75 percent of the diocese’s pastors. The diocese has about 65,000 Catholics and 42 parishes.

In June, the Vatican sent two U.S. archbishops, Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta and Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul-Minneapolis, on a three-day investigation, known as a visitation, to determine what was wrong in Memphis and what needed to be done.

Local news sources also said the investigators were looking at Holley’s decision to bring in a Canadian priest, the Rev. Clement Machado, to serve as his vicar general, equivalent to a chief of staff.

A week after the visitation, Machado resigned, with Holley saying Machado needed to pursue further studies and take care of his mother.

The Vatican on Wednesday gave no indication of what that visitation found, and no canon law was cited as the justification for Holley’s removal.

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville has been appointed apostolic administrator of the Memphis Diocese until the pope names a replacement.

(David Gibson, a former national reporter for Religion News Service, is director of Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture.)

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