Editorial: Tears of Parish Priest a Sign of Superior Diocese Healing

Duluth News-Tribune
July 1, 2007

When the Rev. Peter Christensen received the call from Pope Benedict XVI telling him he was to be the next bishop of Superior, he cried.

"I got off the phone, and I sobbed for about 15 minutes," the 54-year-old St. Paul priest told Superior Daily Telegram reporter Maria Lockwood last week.

It's a hopeful sign -- not because his tears signaled joy at fulfilling an ambition to wear a bishop's mitre; Christensen said he never sought the job. Rather, because his emotion betrays the humility needed to lead the Catholic faithful of the troubled Diocese of Superior. Along with the necessary administrative skills, the ability to empathize with the human condition is an invaluable asset for a bishopric that has had more than its share of adversity.

Outgoing Bishop Raphael Fliss leaves a diocese awash with a strong spirituality, best symbolized by the $6.5 million renovation of Christ the King Cathedral in 2005. But his flock is also shaken by the clergy sexual abuse scandal. Already under fire for his handling of abuse allegations against the Rev. David Malsch, Fliss in 2005 was castigated for failing to act on sexual misconduct claims against the Rev. Ryan Erickson known to the diocese since 1994. In 2002, Erickson likely murdered two men at a Hudson, Wis., funeral home in an abuse-related incident before hanging himself, a judge said after the deaths.

Fliss apologized for his "failings, omissions and lack of attentiveness" in the Erickson case, but healing had yet to set in before the diocese was hit with other charges in late 2006, this time that church leaders had covered up the abuse of a cathedral altar boy by the Rev. Edward Beutner 40 years earlier. And Fliss and his staff have been less than forthcoming about the late Rev. Irving Klister, a onetime diocese chancellor and founding editor of the Superior Catholic Herald who abruptly left for Texas in the 1950s at the time of his confessed abuse of a 14-year-old boy. He later was convicted on child pornography charges.

Christensen addressed abuse issues, saying more attention should be paid to seminarians and that he favors makingpublic the names of predatory priests "within reason." But in addition to putting out fires -- and one hopes, preventing them -- he appears to have a priest's capacity for caring.

"I'm encouraged any time a parish priest is named bishop because the odds are less that they were involved in any coverup," David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests told the News Tribune editorial page staff. He added he was struck by Christensen's tearful reaction to his elevation.

"Oftentimes, bishops seem to be cold careerists," Clohessy said. "That he would be in touch with his emotions and acknowledge that publicly may well be a good sign."

Christ the King rector the Rev. Daniel Dahlberg expressed his admiration, telling the Telegram's Lockwood that Christensen "has a deep faith and deep love for people."

Compassion perhaps best expressed in tears.


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