Newark Archbishop Myers' Assistant a Contrast in Style [video]

By Jeff Green
The Record
September 24, 2013

Bishop Bernard A. Hebda, left speaking at the press conference, next to Archbishop John J. Myers.

[with video]

NEWARK — The Rev. Bernard A. Hebda comes from a place where reprimanded priests are named in press releases, and where the members of a panel charged with investigating clergy sex abuse are listed in the diocesan directory for anyone to see.

As bishop of Gaylord, Mich., Hebda expanded that review panel to include laypeople who work with children and teens. He also met personally with priests who were accused of sex abuse to ensure that they did not pose a danger to children.

On Tuesday, Hebda was named coadjutor bishop to Newark Archbishop John J. Myers, and on those critical points — issues at the heart of a scandal that has consumed the Newark archdiocese — the contrast between Hebda and the man he stands to succeed as archbishop one day could not be more stark.

Myers, who called his critics “evil” in an August letter to clergy, has come under fire for his treatment of a former Wyckoff priest who, prosecutors allege, violated a court-ordered agreement that barred him from ministering to children. And church records released last month in a $1.3 million lawsuit settlement with the Illinois diocese that Myers once headed showed a pattern of denial by Myers pertaining to knowledge of a priest’s alleged sex abuse — for which he faulted underlings who failed to alert him, or shoddy record keeping.

Under Myers’ leadership, the identities of review board members are confidential, only some parishioners are told when priests are disciplined, and most responsibilities are carried out by top church officials.

Whether Hebda’s assignment to Newark signals a change in the archdiocese’s approach has yet to be seen. But the coadjutor bishop’s seemingly more transparent method had victims’ advocates feeling optimistic that he could mark the end of what they call an era of secrecy.

“It’s a clear example of why things should change,” said Mark Crawford, the New Jersey director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “Be open about these dealings. That certainly hasn’t been the case in the Archdiocese of Newark.”

Before the start of a press conference Tuesday in the archdiocesan center, Hebda received a standing ovation as he and Myers entered a room packed with other church leaders, nuns, priests and archdiocesan employees.

Myers, who at times seemed delighted, at other times defensive, said he requested a coadjutor archbishop “some time ago” and thanked Pope Francis for making the appointment. While introducing the 54-year-old prelate, Myers said Hebda would be given the task of running several long-term initiatives and brought in on all major decisions.

The archbishop said a coadjutor bishop is needed as he nears retirement, though at 72 he said his health is “excellent.” Myers must submit his resignation at age 75.

Hebda automatically will take the helm of the archdiocese upon Myers’ resignation or retirement, said Jim Goodness, archdiocese spokesman.

Myers rejected an explanation given by some Catholic experts that Hebda’s appointment was intended as a rebuke of his handling of the sex-abuse scandals.

“Absolutely not,” Myers said. “It was my own request. That was never part of any discussion … with persons in Rome.”

Hebda, calling the appointment a “great privilege,” said he would assist Myers wherever the archbishop needs help. In response to a question about who will have more influence, he emphasized that Myers would still be the primary leader of the archdiocese.

“I can answer that question unequivocally, that Archbishop Myers is No. 1,” Hebda said.

Bishop Edgar da Cunha, the vicar general of the archdiocese, said Hebda’s appointment is a blessing for the church.

“I can see he brings a good sense of humor, he’s a very bright man and his pastoral sensitivity will be good for all,” da Cunha said.

Paterson Bishop Arthur Serratelli, a former vicar general in the Newark archdiocese, issued a statement welcoming Hebda to New Jersey, saying he is “well suited to be of great assistance” to Myers and the archdiocese.

For the last four months, Myers has been beset by criticism that he did not closely supervise the Rev. Michael Fugee, who was arrested in May for attending youth groups and hearing confessions of children in alleged violation of a legal agreement. Fugee was found guilty of groping a teenage boy in 2003, but the conviction was overturned because of a judicial error. He and the archdiocese later signed the agreement barring him from working with children, and he was returned to ministry.

Last month the settlement of a sex-abuse lawsuit with Myers’ former diocese in Peoria again put him on the defensive. The alleged victim’s lawyer said that the diocese did not act on a molestation complaint about the Rev. Thomas Maloney, and that a month later, the priest abused an 8-year-old boy.

Myers testified in a 2010 deposition that he never saw the initial complaint, possibly because it was lost in the diocese’s “haphazard” filing system. In a letter to clergy, he called his critics evil and blamed the media for distorting facts in the case.

Hebda will help run an overhaul of elementary schools and a fundraising initiative in addition to sharing other powers with Myers. It’s not clear if he will be involved in shaping the archdiocese’s policies regarding allegations of sexual abuse.

Goodness said Hebda will be going back to Michigan to begin the transition for his old diocese and pack his belongings. He will return to Newark for a welcoming Mass at 2 p.m. on Nov. 5 at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

Goodness downplayed the difference in policies between the Gaylord diocese and Newark, saying the archdiocese review board members requested confidentiality and that announcements about priests removed from ministry were made at parishes where the clerics worked. He said he did not foresee a clash.

“Some dioceses do things differently,” Goodness said.

Candace Neff, spokeswoman for the Diocese of Gaylord, said only three priests had been removed from ministry on sex-abuse allegations — compared with 19 in Newark — and that none has been taken out since 2009, the beginning of Hebda’s tenure. But Hebda said he personally kept a close watch over them.

“I did have that opportunity to spend time with them on a regular basis,” he said. “Much more often than not, I was very much edified by the spirit of prayer and penance that was part of their lives. That was something I was checking on.”

Myers, noting that supervision is difficult, said the archdiocese is “aggressively involved” and keeps in regular contact with priests who are out of public ministry.

The differing pastoral styles of the two prelates were also on display. Myers, more reserved and guarded, continued to lash out at the media for “slanting stories and leaving out details.”

“The Lord told us to love even those who persecute you, so I pray daily for those who are in the media,” he said.

And while responding to a question about when he asked the Vatican for an assistant, he curtly replied, “I don’t think I need to talk about my conversations with Rome.”

Hebda appeared to take a page from the new pope’s playbook, thanking a reporter for a question about whether he would meet with abuse victims like three protesters outside the press conference. His tone was self-deprecating as he poked fun at his weight and his secluded country residence.

“I suspect I was the only bishop in the country to have a deer blind in his backyard,” he said.

Myers and Hebda said they knew each other for 17 years, dating back to when both served on a Vatican body that interprets canon law. Asked about his biggest difference with Myers, Hebda said, “His dedication to exercise.”



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