Bishop nixes conference trip cited in healing services delay

Gallup Independent

Published in the Gallup Independent, Gallup, N.M., Aug. 18, 2017

By Elizabeth Hardin-Burrola
Independent correspondent

GALLUP — Bishop James S. Wall, of the Diocese of Gallup, canceled an appearance at last month’s national Tekakwitha Conference for Native American Catholics due to illness, his spokeswoman confirmed this week.

Suzanne Hammons, the director of communications for the Gallup Diocese, declined to answer specific questions about Wall’s cancellation, but indicated it was related to vertigo and problems with balance, a condition the bishop was diagnosed with last year.

Wall had been scheduled to be the principal celebrant for the morning liturgy July 21. This year’s conference was held in Rapid City, South Dakota, July 19-22. The annual conference draws Native Catholics from across the country, along with Catholic clergy and religious order members who serve Native communities.

Earlier this year, Wall’s decision to postpone two healing services for local survivors of clergy sexual abuse in order to attend the Tekakwitha Conference raised the ire of some abuse survivors. Wall postponed the healing services in Overgaard and Snowflake, Arizona, which had been scheduled for July 21 and July 22. Those services have been rescheduled in March 2018.

Hammons later issued an apology on behalf of the diocese, describing the double booked dates as a scheduling oversight.

Vestibular damage

Wall’s ill health in July is the latest in a series of illnesses that have impacted his public schedule. In January, Wall postponed all five of the healing services that had been scheduled for clergy sex abuse survivors that month.

In response to questions about Wall’s cancellation in South Dakota and his vertigo, Hammons referenced an online podcast interview she conducted with Wall in March about coping with illness and suffering. In the interview, the Gallup bishop discussed the two “health scares” he said he has experienced in the past four years.

Wall said he underwent surgery and radiation therapy in 2013 after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Annual checkups have since determined he continues to be cancer free, he said.

However, Wall explained in the March interview, he began experiencing problems with his balance about six months before. Last year, Wall said, he had been hospitalized for an infection and given an antibiotic. That antibiotic turned out to be “ototoxic,” which means the drug can be toxic to the ear, specifically the cochlea, auditory nerve or sometimes the vestibular system. The side effects can be reversible and temporary or irreversible and permanent.

In Wall’s case, he said a neurotologist has determined he has suffered 80-90 percent vestibular damage, which has affected his balance.

As part of a published column to local Catholics at the beginning of Lent, Wall offered the following explanation about his health problems: “If you are unaware, I have been quietly struggling with an imbalance (vertigo) issue for the past year, thinking it to be something that would simply pass. However, it didn’t go away and only seemed to increase, especially toward the end of 2016. Thankfully, through the good care of doctors, I was diagnosed with bilateral vestibular damage, which was caused by antibiotics I had to take for a nasal infection a year ago. The damage is permanent, but the effects are not, as I have been working closely with physical therapists who have helped me get back to some sense of normalcy. It’s a slow process, but if I stay up on my exercises I’ll be back to normal in a month or so.”

Since Wall’s diagnosis, he has sometimes needed to remain seated while celebrating Mass, conducting a healing service or attending an event.

However, as a member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Wall travels twice a year to attend biannual conferences, and he frequently travels to meet with fellow bishops in Arizona and New Mexico. This year Wall also led a 10-day pilgrimage tour to Spain and Portugal, and he is scheduled to co-lead a similar tour to Ireland next month.

In an email Thursday, Hammons declined to comment on the current level of Wall’s vertigo symptoms, about how often he is affected by the symptoms and how he manages his symptoms while traveling. Hammons referred to the information released in the March podcast, adding “if there is ever a reason to issue an update on the status of Bishop Wall’s health publicly, he will do so at a time of his choosing.”

“An issue such as vertigo is not cause for any kind of vacation from a leadership role; rather, it is a legitimate and ongoing medical condition which is likely to interrupt the Bishop’s schedule from time to time,” she said. “He will still continue to carry out pastoral activities and care of the diocese.”

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