The Reluctant Archbishop

The aloof style of Justin Rigali served him well at the Vatican but distances him from the faithful of St. Louis

Today, the HRO, one-fourth its former size, works to end abortion, racial bigotry and the death penalty. Members of the diocesan Human Rights Commission no longer issue statements independent of the archbishop. And no one raises his voice.

Romanita has taken hold.

Rick Sealock
Archbishop Justin Rigali: "He has a horror of disorder."
Jennifer Silverberg
Archbishop Justin Rigali: "He has a horror of disorder."

Many people approached the archbishop about dismantled human-rights projects, but he chose not to meet with them. Nor did he meet with Catholic schoolteachers when they organized to fight for their rights, or with parishioners at St. Cronan when they wrote after their pastor was removed for alleged sexual abuse. Former priest Bob Schutzius wrote Rigali several times about a support group for priests who left to marry; he received no reply. Margaret Gilleo wrote about inclusive language and did receive a reply: "He said he'd pray for me." Her husband, Charles Guenther Jr., wrote with qualms of conscience about the archdiocese's stock portfolio and received no reply. Teacher Barb Dorris wrote about an abusive priest and received no reply. Catholics wrote expressing hopes for Faithful St. Louis and received no reply.

"They've got those little guys who carry their hats for them -- can't one at least write a form letter?" snaps one woman.

"It's not arrogance," says a priest who knows Rigali well. "He's just not comfortable unless he knows the agenda. He wants to be prepared, and that fear of responding too quickly keeps him from engaging with people instantly on a topic."

He is also, a local Catholic observes, "either afraid to reveal a personal side of himself or incapable of it." Not only does Rigali keep personal experience out of his homilies and columns, he strains it from most conversations. "I think he sees it as a weakness," says the layman with a shrug.

Rigali's parents taught all their children a self-effacing humility. But Rome sealed his reticence.

"When you spend that much time in the Vatican, you become a supporter of the church," notes the Reverend Gerry Kleba, the new pastor at St. Cronan. "You're like one of the Bernini columns, just one of many holding up the place. You don't want to draw attention to yourself. Right now, Justin Rigali wouldn't have enough inner authority to say in a homily, 'Love your neighbor.' He would say, 'As the pope said when he was in Toronto, "Love your neighbor."'"

Kleba sighs: "He is such a good man. But when you live in the shadow of the world's biggest organization and you feel like the organization is the embodiment of Jesus, somehow you don't remember anymore how you have to be the embodiment of Jesus. The Gospel says, 'Love others as you love yourself.' If you don't have a self to love, you have nothing to share. You're just going through the motions."

Rigali glides from table to table at formal functions, greeting everyone individually, remembering every name.

"He doesn't seem relaxed or happy about it," observes one priest, "but he is always affable. He is professionally gracious."

The archbishop's priority, always, is the priests of the diocese. He cares deeply for them, handwriting personal notes on their birthdays and visiting them in the hospital.

Yet few feel at ease with him.

"It's hard for him to connect that way," continues the priest. "He may just be afraid to ask the questions -- afraid to hear the answers."

When members of the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests (a.k.a. SNAP) showed up in the marble lobby of the chancery, a nervous receptionist called up to the archbishop. Until then, he had not responded to their requests to meet. But he came down to the lobby, and they hand-delivered a list of three points they'd just made at their national press conference.

"He said over and over, in this soft confused voice, 'Where is the cover letter? When things come into my office. they generally have a cover letter,'" recalls SNAP member Steve Pona. "I went home and drafted one that afternoon. That's when I knew we were in trouble. He wasn't confused about why we were there -- he just couldn't understand why we'd been remiss in handing him a serious document without a cover letter."

Seven years ago, Lynn Woolfolk told the Riverfront Times he'd been abused by a parish priest for six years, starting when he was twelve ["Sanctuary for Their Sins," March 8, 1995]. As an adult, Woolfolk felt the need to confront the priest, who was still working in a parish. The priest refused to acknowledge the harm he'd done, so Woolfolk met with the archbishop. Afterward, he said Rigali told him, "Anger will get us nowhere. Let's say the Our Father."

Since then, Rigali has stopped meeting with victims altogether.

Once again, he is only following what's become a procedural norm: delegating abuse cases to an auxiliary bishop. "One could argue that Rigali has been no worse than many of his colleagues," says David Clohessy, national director of SNAP and founder of the local chapter. "In my most charitable moments, I think what happens is that Rigali is fearful, and he listens to the advice of his attorneys and PR folks and does nothing."

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