Lori to leave area diocese to lead Baltimore Catholics
Bishop William E. Lori, who led the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport through a wrenching sexual abuse scandal left behind by his predecessor while emerging as a forceful national voice for religious liberty, has been named the 16th archbishop of Baltimore.
Pope Benedict XVI made the announcement Tuesday; Lori said he was informed a week ago.
"I want to express my gratitude to Pope Benedict for entrusting me with this great and historic diocese," he said during a morning news conference at the Baltimore Basilica, also known as the National Shrine of the Assumption.
Lori will succeed Cardinal Edwin O'Brien, who served as archbishop from October 2007 to August 2011, when he was named grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.
Lori, the 60-year-old leader of the Bridgeport diocese since March 2001, had been viewed as the favorite for the job after taking an increasingly prominent role among U.S. bishops in recent years. He will be formally installed in his new post May 16. Until then, he continues in Bridgeport with slightly reduced authority, spokesman Brian Wallace said.
During Lori's time in Bridgeport, he helped write the Dallas Policy, also known as the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which set zero tolerance for abusive priests; fought off a proposed state law to place control of parishes in the hands of laypeople, and testified before Congress on the need for religious liberty.
At Tuesday morning's news conference, he told press, clergy and nuns that the issue of religious freedom is a priority of the U.S. Conference of Bishops, "and I will carry this issue forward. It's been hard to miss that there has been an erosion of religious liberty in this country, along with the secularization of society."
He said he will also stress evangelical outreach in an effort to draw more people into the church.
The Metropolitan Archdiocese of Baltimore is the nation's oldest, serving nearly 550,000 Catholics attending approximately 100 churches. About 45 percent of people residing in the archdiocese are Catholic, making Baltimore the 39th largest diocese. Bridgeport is the nation's 45th largest.
"The new evangelization is proclaiming the gospel afresh,'' said Lori, who appeared at the Tuesday news conference bare-headed, without the traditional red skull cap. "It's a matter of listening. People sometimes have a caricature of what the church teaches, rather than what it does teach."
Lori follows in the footsteps of the late Cardinal Lawrence Shehan, who was the first bishop of Bridgeport when the diocese was created in 1953 and left to become archbishop of Baltimore in 1961. Shehan was elevated to cardinal in 1965 and died in 1984. Lori, like Shehan, had been an auxiliary bishop in Washington, D.C.
Lori on Tuesday fielded questions on Maryland's pending referendum on gay marriage, and on church closures and new vocations.
"Marriage is one man and one woman; it's an institution that predates governments," he said. "I'll be teaching as a bishop and working with other bishops and leaders in Maryland as the referendum unfolds."
Having moved to close several Bridgeport-area churches, citing declining parish enrollments, Lori faces the same issue in his new post. "That is not uncommon in a large diocese as this one is," Lori said.
Undoubtedly the most explosive issue during Lori's time in Bridgeport was the disposition of dozens of sex-abuse lawsuits against priests brought against the diocese in previous years. Lori settled those lawsuits, with the diocese paying out about $36 million.
Lori helped create a model program used by the Roman Catholic Church nationally to ensure a safe environment and to root out priests who had abused children.
But he drew angry condemnation from victims-rights advocates for his nearly eight-year legal battle -- which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court -- to keep sealed thousands of pretrial documents from the sex-abuse cases. In 2009, Lori lost that fight. The records, some of which had been disclosed during trial, revealed additional details on how the diocese had reassigned priests accused of sexual conduct to other parishes.
The Baltimore appointment is somewhat of a homecoming for Lori. On May 14, 1977, the Kentucky native was ordained a priest in Washington, D.C. His first assignment was as an associate pastor at St. Joseph Parish in Landover, Md. He received his master's degree from Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., and his doctorate in sacred theology from the Catholic University of America in Washington.
Weeks before Tuesday's Vatican announcement, insiders were predicting Lori would be the appointee to the Baltimore archdiocese.
"I've heard his name floated around when there were vacancies in Philadelphia and New York," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, S.J., coordinator of the religion and public policy program at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center. "It seems whenever any major archdiocese becomes vacant, his name pops up."
Observers said Lori's appointment continues the trend of the Vatican looking to install leaders who steer away from the progressive bent of the 1960s and '70s and support Rome's insistence on doctrinal faithfulness.
"Under John Paul II (1978-2005) and Pope Benedict XVI, there's a stronger emphasis on discipline, doctrinal orthodoxy and loyalty to the church," he said. "I think there is great care being taken that the bishops who are chosen are not going to shake things up very much."
Reese agreed. "You're not going to get some radical reformer," he said. "You're going to get someone who will work with the Vatican's positions on the various controversial issues."
On Oct. 26, just a month after Lori was appointed to chair the Bishop's Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Freedom, he found himself sitting before the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution. There, Lori strongly advocated change in several federal regulations involving same-sex marriages, distribution of contraception and reduction of religious institutions' exception to civil law involving hiring and firing.
Earlier this year, Lori joined other religious leaders in warning a congressional panel that the Obama administration was violating a basic right to religious freedom by mandating that employees of religion-affiliated institutions have access to birth control coverage.
Obama modified that policy so insurance companies, and not the organization affiliated with a church, pay for birth control costs, but that hasn't satisfied Lori and other bishops.
Lori also was not shy about taking on the Connecticut General Assembly. When a proposed bill to allow more parishioner participation on the governance boards of individual churches was circulating in Hartford, Lori accused lawmakers of attempting to meddle in its operations. With the bishop leading the charge, the measure was quickly beaten down.
Terry McKiernan, director of BishopAccountability.org, which maintains a library of the Catholic priest sexual-abuse scandal, said late last year that Lori had earned a promotion. "He took the hot potato left behind by Bishop Edward Egan and put as good a face as the Catholic Church could want on it. Lori did what the Catholic Church needed to do," which he said included delaying the public release of court documents.
ANGER OVER CLOSINGS
The Bridgeport diocese, which spans Fairfield County, includes about 410,000 Roman Catholics. In the city of Bridgeport, the church has witnessed seismic demographic changes, as bedrock European communities that formed parishes for generations were replaced by immigrant communities from Haiti and Latin America.
One move that has put Lori on the hot seat in Bridgeport recently was the announced closing of four parishes, including Holy Rosary on East Washington Avenue.
The announcement was a bitter pill for those who have gone to the three churches for decades.
"I think we're getting a raw deal," said Mike Rodriguez outside of Mass one Sunday at St. Ambrose. He has been attending Mass there for nearly 20 years. "They could have given us more time. We can make it work. The people here are devastated."
Irate parishioners are exploring options to keep their churches open.
Lori was a familiar figure at charity events across the diocese, often appearing at fundraisers and luncheons.
His fondness for his golden retrievers was well known, and well-wishers often inquired about his pets or remarked about photos of the bishop with his beloved dogs.
Staff writer John Burgeson contributed to this report.