The Reluctant Archbishop

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

Clohessy knows what he'd do if he wore a bishop's miter: "First I'd contract with an independent social-service agency to provide 'safe touch' training in all the schools and to be a referral for counseling. Then I would call all the priests together and say two things: 'If you have this problem, if you are sexually drawn to kids, come to me now. I will give you the best help we can find, and I will stand by you forever. And if you don't have this problem but you suspect one of your brother priests does and you cover it up, I will hang you out to dry.'

"In terms of this issue, Rigali has been very disappointing," adds Clohessy. "Given that he came from Rome, our expectations were never high; historically the Vatican has been very reluctant in dealing with this issue. They believe it's a problem created by salacious media, greedy lawyers and inept bishops who can't keep a lid on what bishops in other countries keep a lid on. But in this country, the comparison to Rigali is right across the river in Belleville: detailed accounting of the money they spent, public removals and Bishop [Wilton] Gregory has gone to parishes and said, 'Here's what we did and why.'"

At the U.S. bishops' meeting in Dallas this June, Gregory told the other bishops, "We are the ones who allowed priest abusers to remain in ministry and reassigned them.... We are the ones who chose not to report the criminal actions of priests ... [and who] responded to victims and their families as adversaries."

Gregory's openness, and his willingness to own and apologize for the bishops' actions, softened the hearts of many Catholics.

Rigali's silence only hardened their resolve.


Last March, Rigali called a meeting of all priests. Speaking from a prepared text, he wielded his usual precision, calling the sexual-abuse crisis "the most difficult time in my sixteen-and-a-half years as a bishop." He went on to remind them that "even the church's power of remitting temporal punishment through the great gift of indulgences cannot authorize us to prescind from the legal and community consequences of substantiated sexual abuse of minors."

The priests sat, glazed, patient. Hoping for more. When Rigali finished, the president of the priests' council rose and did something that may have set historic precedent. He stood at the microphone and said: "I am angry at the archdiocese, and I am angry at you, Archbishop Rigali."

Rigali's expression didn't change. But the other priests were nodding in agreement. They hadn't enjoyed learning about accusations and removals of their brethren from the daily paper. They wanted communication, and they wanted solutions.

When they lined up at the microphone to offer ideas, Rigali said, "I'm not prepared to handle those." He'd come with three suggestions of his own: Priests should go to confession more often, show more devotion to the Blessed Virgin and avail themselves of more opportunities for Eucharistic adoration.

"He had confessors lined up along the sides of the room," recalls one priest. "A few priests did go to confession, but 90 percent just left. They felt sold out. Afterward, I almost went up to him and said, 'We really missed the boat here. We needed something else.'"

On March 31, Rigali did his famous "media blitz," granting extensive interviews for the first time since his installation in the hope of forestalling ambushes during Holy Week. St. Louis Catholics watched like nervous family members, holding their breath when he hesitated, worrying because he seemed so alone. When he entered the Cathedral Basilica that Holy Thursday, more than 1,000 laypeople and priests applauded.

On Easter Sunday, people slid into the same pews and crowded close together, waiting to hear their archbishop make sense of suffering and sin and salvation.

"God the Father," he said in his homily, "by raising Christ from the dead, ratifies the value of Christ's redeeming death[italics Rigali's]." Blank-faced, people filed out again.

The next month, Fleishman-Hillard donated a senior vice president, James Orso, to handle communications for the archdiocese. Local Catholics took the announcement as yet another wedge between the world and their archbishop.

"Rigali's columns and homilies were always pretty stilted," says one woman, "but at least we did not have a packaged leader. We don't want the sense that we have a PR guy speaking for our archbishop."

What people want -- but don't believe they have a snowball's chance in hell of getting -- is real conversation. Other bishops held "listening sessions" with the laity. But when Rigali met with parish representatives, it wasn't to solicit their opinions; he was simply trying, in Orso's words, "to reach out to all the constituents."

At an April meeting of diocesan leaders, the Reverend Steve Robeson asked the archbishop, "Is there something about the clerical culture, not the fact of celibacy or authority but the way we practice those, that lends itself to dysfunction and, worst-case, to sexual abuse?" Robeson maintains that "it is a scandal that we don't know the answer to that question, because we are now designing the reform without sufficient knowledge of the causes."

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