Published in the Gallup Independent, Gallup, N.M., Aug. 31, 2017
Since James S. Wall was installed as bishop of the Diocese of Gallup more than eight years ago, his lackluster tenure here has been marked by poor leadership and misplaced priorities.
Although his arrival in 2009 was widely welcomed and celebrated, it soon became clear that the leadership sorely needed by the Gallup Diocese was not to be found in Bishop Wall. Instead, Bishop Wall quickly became known particularly among his own priests — not for his leadership qualities — but rather for his lack of communication skills and his frequent absences. Bishop Wall was the bishop who would not answer letters or emails, would not return phone calls, would not meet with people, and would not answer questions from concerned priests or parishioners. Bishop Wall was the bishop who was frequently absent from the diocese. Quite often Bishop Wall was away in Phoenix, the city where he was ordained a priest, where he grew up, where his family lives. The people of the Diocese of Gallup did not seem to be a big priority to him.
Bishop Wall’s poor sense of priorities has become a common theme for the past eight years. To many clergy sex abuse victims and their families, he is “Bishop Stonewall” — the bishop who used lawyers and legal maneuvers to battle them for years. And to many Catholics in the pews, such as the members of Gallup’s St. John Vianney Parish, Bishop Wall is the aloof autocratic bishop who refused to meet with them when it appeared he was trying to shut down their parish in 2015.
This year, Bishop Wall has once again demonstrated his upside- down, skewed priorities by postponing eight healing services for clergy abuse survivors that were mandated by the terms of the diocese’s Chapter 11 reorganization.
One service in February was postponed for more than a year because of an “oversight” by the bishop’s staff, which scheduled the service on the same evening as the bishop’s Mardi Gras fundraiser. The fundraising party was a top priority, and clergy abuse survivors were a low priority.
Two more healing services in July were pushed back to 2018 so Bishop Wall could make an appearance at the national Tekakwitha Conference for Native American Catholics. That was another scheduling oversight by the bishop’s staff. According to the bishop’s spokeswoman, Bishop Wall needed to attend the conference because he “has the responsibility of listening to the voices of Indigenous Catholics” and the conference “provides Native People with a major platform to voice their needs and concerns on a national scale.” So once again, Bishop Wall’s priorities were clear: a national conference was high priority, clergy abuse survivors were low priority. That decision was also steeped in irony since Bishop Wall is not known for “listening to the voices” and the “needs and concerns” of everyday Catholics in his own diocese, some of whom are Native American.
But in this case, Bishop Wall ended up canceling his appearance at the Tekakwitha Conference also. Bishop Wall has postponed five healing services and canceled his attendance at the Tekakwitha event because of illness. Certainly, we are not criticizing Bishop Wall for being ill with vertigo, the medical condition that is causing him to struggle with balance issues. It is apparently a permanent condition, and Bishop Wall has no control over it.
However, Bishop Wall can take practical steps to manage his condition, and he has done this. On at least two occasions, Bishop Wall has had others drive him to healing services. And during some Masses and healing services, Bishop Wall has remained seated. Had Bishop Wall not postponed the July healing services, he could have had someone drive him to the services and he could have remained seated while he conducted the services. His presence — in the face of his illness — would have shown respect to clergy sex abuse survivors and their families by making them his priority.
And what about his two trips to Europe this year? How is it that his symptoms of vertigo haven’t led the Gallup bishop to cancel his trip to Spain and Portugal in March or his trip to Ireland in September? Perhaps Bishop Wall has found a way to manage his symptoms while traveling in Europe? Are European trips a high priority? Can you pretend this diocese is a foreign country and travel to it?
Understand, Bishop Wall, that people watch your example, people pay attention to your priorities. Bishop Wall, after eight years, you have an obligation to step up to the plate and become an authentic moral leader. Bishop Wall, reorder your priorities and place the needs of clergy sex abuse survivors and faithful Catholics in the pews as your top priorities. Trips to Phoenix, trips to national conventions and trips to Europe should be low priorities or non-existent.
If Bishop Wall can’t provide real leadership in the Gallup Diocese, he should request permission to be transferred to another church position like Pinehaven or Chichiltah. Certainly Pope Francis could find someone else whose priorities are in proper order and who has an authentic sympathetic heart for the people of the Diocese of Gallup.
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