For part of the diocesan sesquicentennial special section, Bishop W. Francis Malooly agreed to an interview with Joseph P. Owens, editor and general manager of The Dialog. The transcript of their Oct. 1 conversation is below. Listen to the podcast by clicking here.
Bishop Malooly, we are more than halfway through the sesquicentennial year and many celebrations have taken place throughout Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Many people have contributed to events — from a pilgrimage to France and Italy in the spring, monthly Mass at historic churches in the diocese, the Nov. 3 convocation — and more. Has the celebration of this milestone met your expectations thus far and what has stood out as memorable for you?
“Actually, all of the things that you say have been really memorable. The pilgrimage – we had 135 pilgrims, five of my brother priests were with me – I’d done many pilgrimages under Cardinal Keeler’s tutelage in Baltimore because he liked to do that. But this was the nicest trip, nicest event I’d had. Annecy was outstanding. Rome was just a really enjoyable situation. And with Assisi … St. Francis, St. Clare, it was just a very moving experience. That was especially enjoyable. In fact, we actually just had a reunion with half of our pilgrims a couple of weeks ago. They’re still sharing all their memories well.
The pilgrimage Masses … the monthly Masses on the first Saturdays … I was at Old Bohemia for the September Mass, I’ve been at the Cathedral. I have a few more to go. For me it’s been very interesting because coming from Baltimore and having nine counties from our diocese in Maryland, which would have been attached to Baltimore prior to 1868, I had a sense of the history. Of course, the history of Baltimore as the first diocese was on this side of the pond. It was at Old Bohemia, it was at Cordova, it was at Coffee Run. Because you really couldn’t practice the faith under the British monarch in those big cities. It was tough enough to do it here, so to see the connection of how the church grew, and of course by 1868 it was pretty far moving ahead, but still it was just very few people. I think there were 5,000 Catholics if I recall in our diocese when the first bishop came here and only eight priests.
It was a project in growth, so it’s been nice just to revisit that. This certainly has measured up to any expectations I had. Those who have been involved in this … it has really been done very well.”
Bishop, congratulations on reaching the 10-year mark as bishop of Wilmington in September.
I know you set a course for yourself and the diocese upon your arrival and you have developed priorities for the diocese in the time that you have been here. As you reflect on your first 10 years, what do you consider among the greatest achievements or advancements of the diocese in that time?
“When I first came here, we were dealing with some of the issues of our past crimes, as you know, and eventually went into a bankruptcy situation to fairly compensate all 165 survivors who had been abused by priests. You never make up for the crimes. Money is not going to solve the issue for the survivor, but I think having the chance to at least do something was gratifying to me. And I hope would’ve been of some support to many of the survivors.
We did a restructure of the church. We had some layoffs. And we’re a leaner central administration now and I think we have an excellent administration and I’m very pleased with all our departments and offices we have and with their direction. I think that whole thrust has been very good. I think the emphasis on hospitality and being welcoming … of course, a lot of that comes from Pope Francis, but we started that too, before that, and I think our convocation will try to address that with our parish staffs and parish leadership. And even more significant now with the abuse crisis popping up again in a different format.
We’ve dealt with so many of these issues here, but nationally and internationally it’s still a lot that has to be addressed. And we have to keep vigilant here, too. We have to make sure – even though we can say today we haven’t had a legitimate complaint in 25 years, today is today, so we take it one day at a time and do what we can.
I’ve always been impressed with the clergy here – our diocesan clergy and our religious order men. We have many groups of religious women, which is very meaningful to have the different charisms here in a small diocese. I think what they bring to the table and to the people is very significant also.”
You’re a lifelong Baltimore person and served there for many years before being appointed to Wilmington. Wilmington is a bordering diocese to the Archdiocese of Baltimore and a place where your family visited and vacationed during your lifetime. Describe how life has been for you living in a place so familiar and close to home as opposed to having been asked to serve halfway across the country.
I always had a connection with Wilmington because Wilmington was a suffragan diocese of Baltimore. Having been in administration in Baltimore since 1984, I always had connections with this diocese. I knew four of my eight predecessors. Having met Bishop Michael Hyle as a teenager when he visited my home parish in the late ’50s, I knew Bishop Mardaga, who came from Baltimore while I was in the seminary, and then working with Bishop Mulvee and Bishop Saltarelli because I was part of the Maryland Catholic Conference, with the three dioceses – Wilmington, Baltimore and Washington – that have territory in Maryland. It was a pretty close fit for me and I knew at least a third of the priests here when I came from having been in the seminary with a number of them and also having been on the board of St. Mary’s Seminary where so many of our men go.
Bishop, you’re approaching your 75th birthday in January when the church requires you to submit your resignation to Pope Francis. The pope is not required to accept it. It could be three weeks, three months or three years. That’s not something most people encounter. How do you approach the potential of retirement without really knowing if or when you’ll be granted that opportunity?
Well, there’s no stress in it for me. As a result of our bankruptcy settlement, I bought my own home with my savings from my Baltimore years when the bishop’s house was sold. So, I’ll stay put. I need to clean my office out, but my home is fine. We’ll need to find a place for the new bishop.
I think the shortest time that I’ve noticed for a replacement is six months. And then longest probably maybe two years. For cardinals it tends to be longer than that. I think there are 12 bishops who were born in 1944, my year. And they occupy some of the largest dioceses in the country, so I don’t know how fast the turnaround will be because of that.
Most of what I do that I like I’ll be able to continue, to celebrate the sacraments, Mass, confirmations. I’ll help the new bishop in any way he wants. It would certainly be easier to cover all the sacramental needs that a bishop does with two of us than with one.
What are your plans in retirement?
Well, you know, I don’t know. I’ve never been retired. And I’ve never not been in charge, for a long, long time. I think I’ll just try to be as active as I can, liturgically, and doing anything the bishop wants. I think in the first year we would not do too much because we need to get the new bishop out there to connect with his flock and be part of things. I doubt that he would want me to do confirmations during the first year. I’ve loved it here. I’ll stay put. I’m only an hour-and-a-half from my family, so that works out well. I don’t have too many hobbies because I didn’t have much time for hobbies. Of course, basketball and tennis that have been a part of my life … I was playing tennis with my brother up until about 10 years ago when I came here … it’s a little too late to recoup that at my age, but I still do a lot of exercise. We have some beautiful parks. I like to walk. There are a lot of things that I’ve missed because I haven’t had time. Wilmington is a great place. The whole diocese; the Maryland part of the diocese. You go to the small towns going down (Route) 213 … I think just local sightseeing will be a nice change of pace, too.
Francis is the fifth pope under whom you have served as a priest. Which of these men has had the greatest impact on your priesthood and is there something from each papacy that is especially meaningful to you?
I didn’t meet Paul VI, nor did I meet John Paul I. The other three I met numerous times. But I probably met St. John Paul II maybe 15 or 20 times. Always impressed with his warmth and his interest and his attention, when I met him individually. When I was part of a group, his interaction with the group was always encouraging. Pope Benedict, for his apparent shyness, really one-on-one is very endearing, very interested. I met him on the Ad Limina visit in 2012, and he acknowledged that he had been praying for me because he knew of the struggles we had here. Obviously, his staff was keeping him up-to-date. I’ve met Pope Francis now twice and both times he said, ‘Please pray for me.’ And I said, ‘I do it every day.’ He’s very warm and very affectuous himself.
Bishop, you wrote a letter to members of the church in August and I’d like to read the opening sentence.
–“It is indeed a difficult time to be a Catholic as stories of egregious crimes perpetrated by Catholic priests and cover-ups by the hierarchy leave us heartbroken, disgusted and angry.”
The Diocese of Wilmington is celebrating its 150th birthday. As it relates to the failures you describe in your letter, what should faithful Catholics expect of the church as the people of the diocese embark on the next 150 years?
These are difficult times and if you’re a church historian and go back through the 2,000 years of the Catholic Church, you’ll find lots of other disastrous times, the Crusades and different other problems. But these are significant and it’s going to cloud the church for a long time coming.
Two years, it took, for the attorney general in Pennsylvania to try to get all the data together. With the rest of the country and the rest of the world, this will not be addressed quickly, and we need to address the issue of crimes committed and of those who have been harmed and try to respond as best we can. I said that when I came here in 2008, that I would reach out to the survivors and do the best I could. It’s kind of a difficult combination to be going through at this time in the church, and to try to celebrate a significant event for our diocese. I think we’ve been able to do it because we’ve tried to be as proactive, as I said, if you look at our track record over the past 25 years, we’ve been very successful as far as I can discern unless there’s something I’m missing out on. And my staff still is very careful in trying to address the issues that come up.
I’ve found historically that in difficult times the church tends to grow stronger. We have an increase in vocations this year from six to eleven (seminarians). I’ve found that when the church struggles, young men decide they might want to be part of the solution. To me, that’s a healthy sign. They’re called by God, not by me, and God works in his own way.
I’ve found … at various activities I’ve attended, people have been very supportive. They kind of bind together. It’s almost like because it is a difficult time, they kind of support each other even more.
And I’ve been really impressed with my priests. They just really have … reached out to people who have concerns. Just try to help them navigate through this difficult time.
Among the questions raised by revelations of sex abuse is the church’s ability to deal with allegations of abuse. The most recent process for dealing with specific reports has been established for more than 15 years and there has been evidence of positive results with fewer incidents, specifically in Wilmington, reported over the course of that time. Tell us what steps have been taken that have helped reduce incidents of “egregious crimes” as you described?
The background checks. The international background checks when we bring priests in from other countries. The vigilance of our child protection coordinators – Mike Connelly now, who was a state policeman and ran a barracks and was involved in this kind of situation in his career with the police. He’s been very helpful in training and in helping people.
It’s important … anytime we get any kind of accusation, it goes right to the police department first before we look at it. We let them do their work and not meddle in the situation. I think that’s all very important. We have our review board, which we’ve had for years. The files that we had of abusive priests were shared with the attorney general in 2002. The list was put out in 2006 and in 2010 we released all of the files publicly. It’s all out there.
I think it’s just good people working in their areas. Our school personnel people do a great job. Our religious ed people do the same thing. They are very competent and vigilant about what they do. I think that’s where the success is. It takes all the people together. One person can’t do it. One school can’t do it. You have to have everybody working on the same page.
Another question has been the judgment of the church’s hierarchy in dealing with allegations against leaders of the church. Specifically, the pope’s action against reported behavior by Archbishop McCarrick calls into question the process by which church leaders are chosen. How will people in the pews regain confidence that church leadership has credibility and accountability?
Probably, one-by-one. I wasn’t aware of the situation with McCarrick. I actually wasn’t aware of any bishop who was acting inappropriately. We’re separate. Sometimes you think that even though there are 195 dioceses and 300 bishops that we’re all in the same league with each other. That’s not the case. I don’t have any direct connection with any of my adjacent dioceses except Baltimore.
All of us are under a cloud. You can’t blame people for responding that way and I think each one of us is going to simply have to assure people that we’re doing the right thing. And they either accept it or they don’t.
In the last 150 years, hundreds of men have served as priests of the Diocese of Wilmington, the vast majority of whom have dedicated their lives to the Lord and made a life’s work of trying to help the church’s members strengthen their faith and make their way through the challenges of life. So many dedicated priests seem to have been pushed to the margins when people talk about clergy. Do you think most parishioners still see it that way? And what do you say to the so many good priests for whom people are grateful?
I try to encourage our priests. You say exactly what’s true. There’s a small percentage of priests – and ministers and rabbis and teachers in Catholic and public systems – who abuse children.
Having said that, one abuse case is one too many. If someone is abusing, it impacts all those people in those categories. So, I think you’re right. I can remember as early as 1984 walking out of the Catholic Center in Baltimore after a priest had been removed by the archbishop and people would look at me like ‘I wonder if he’s one of them.’ It impacts the priests. I know it does. I think their goodness, their dedication, their faith will win out in the end with their own people. But as a group, it puts a cloud over bishops, priests.
We’ve heard a lot of calls for greater involvement from laity in the church. You’ve pointed out that laity already plays a significant role here in our diocese. What role would you say the laity needs to play moving forward?
We continue to have really outstanding lay leaders in our central administration. And that’s significant. We need to do that because we don’t have a lot of priests to do those types of jobs and our Lay employees in Human Resources, Communications, Schools Office, religious education, Catholic Charities, finance office, Development and the newspaper, are much more adept at this than one of my priests would be. So, I think we need to do that.
I intend to form a pastoral council which kind of got lost in the shuffle during the bankruptcy troubles. I’m going to choose a group of some of our top women and men who would give me guidance and advice on an ad-hoc basis. People who are involved in our parishes and our city and our counties in both states and just have them ready to call to question things that may be happening. I need to better utilize the laity. And part of that will come out of the convocation because we’re bringing all the staff together – clergy, lay and religious.
The pope has summoned bishops from each conference to a summit in February to discuss protection of children and prevention of abuse by clergy. In addition, the U.S. bishops’ council plans to address concerns in its meeting this fall. What type of outcome do you hope for from those efforts?
It’s hard to predict. We’ll have one bishop – Cardinal DiNardo from America – representing all of us. Each other country will do the same, so I’m not sure what the results will be.
I think we ourselves have addressed the child abuse crisis well over the years. The Pennsylvania report showed a lot of criminal events from pretty long ago. It didn’t say a lot about what’s happening today or five years ago or 10 years ago. I think we’ve tried to address that well.
The second train moving now, with the McCarrick situation, is behavior with adults. And we’ll have to somehow watch that and see what the preventative measures are in a situation like that.
The sex abuse crisis impacted so many dioceses in the U.S. Here in Wilmington, it helped lead the diocese to bankruptcy. Do you ever regret the decision to enter bankruptcy?
Not at all. I think with the ‘look-back’ legislation the government gave us a chance to try to address the problems of the past. The bankruptcy was helpful because it gave all 165 survivors a chance to get some response and recompense. If not, we would have run out of resources long before we got to No. 100, let alone 165. I think the combination of the look-back legislation and the choice of bankruptcy was the best thing that we could do in a difficult situation. Once again, knowing full well that for many of the survivors it meant little to nothing.
We also have seen a reduced number of men answering a call to vocations. The shrinking number of priests is alarming here in the U.S. Do you think a day will come where priests will be allowed to marry? Or do you think we will ever see women priests?
St. John Paul II in ’94 made it very clear that there would not be women priests. Pope Benedict reasserted that, so I don’t anticipate that on my radar. And married priests, I don’t know. I have no idea. I don’t know if that would help or not.
Bishop, those who know you here in the diocese know you as a man of humility, but in another 50 years, the Diocese of Wilmington will be celebrating its bicentennial and celebrations much like those we’ve seen this year will take place. People of the diocese will certainly review the roster of former bishops. What would you hope for them to say about the tenure of the ninth bishop of Wilmington, W. Francis Malooly?
Well, that’s a loaded question in many ways. I would hope that they would think I gave my best shot to my 10 or 12 years as ordinary. Not perfectly but trying to be as helpful to the church and its growth as possible.
Bishop, I know you recently chatted with Pope Francis during your pilgrimage to Rome and your life as a shepherd in the church has afforded you more than one opportunity to greet and speak with this pope and others. I wonder what your response would be if you were presented with the question from the pontiff: “What makes the Diocese of Wilmington distinctive?”
I think the size. We’re small. A quarter of a million Catholics. The clergy — very diverse, very effective. The religious, I mentioned earlier, we have so many different groups of religious men and women who are so helpful. The people themselves. Wilmington is a close-knit area. New Castle County, with 60 percent of our Catholics, people are very much connected to one another … as relatives and friends and as members of various parishes and diverse communities.
I think the spirit and the enthusiasm that we’ve had – even in the midst of the crisis – every day when I interact with people, they tell me that they’re praying for me and they know this is a difficult time and they’re with me. Not everybody, but a good number. So, I think it’s a great place to be. It’s a great diocese to be part of. I’m very happy that this was what the church chose for me to do.
Bishop, I solicited questions from some readers and this is a sampling of what came back to me.
What has been the most difficult moment in your priesthood?
It’s 34 years of dealing with the abuse crisis, starting in 1984. It’s just very complex, and if you’re put in the middle of that, you don’t see a lot of success stories. You try to help and reach out, but the crimes are so insidious, I’ve always felt that anyone involved in child sexual abuse – everyone loses.
What has been the happiest moment?
As a bishop – I’ve been a bishop 18 years now, so it’s been a pretty long term out of my 48 years as a cleric – of course, I love ordaining priests. I think any bishop will tell you that. And secondly, and almost equally important to me, is confirmations.
My first 17 years in ministry, I was in two parishes where I was responsible for the youth. And then I ran a youth retreat house in north Baltimore County where we had 7,000 teenagers come through in groups of 50 for three-day retreats. I always felt back then this was the only time they would have that kind of peace and tranquility and no distraction from the outside world. To kind of get a little bit of a handle on their relationship with God. I always felt I had to give every bit of energy I could to that.
So, I think ordinations, obviously, and confirmations. It’s been also great to ordain so many outstanding permanent deacons. We have a great cadre of men and their wives who support so much of the ministry of the diocese.
If you had not been a priest, what profession do you think you might have pursued?
You know, I never thought of that. Someone asked me that … maybe back when I came here.
Most of my classmates went in two directions. Many became lawyers, and a couple became judges. And then many became public servants. FBI, Secret Service … and I think the second, the public service, is because training in the seminary was very disciplined from first-year high school on, so many were outstanding in that kind of work because they had the training that helped one be disciplined for the priesthood, but also could help one deal with those kinds of occupations and service.
When the time comes, what do you hope God will say to you when he greets you in heaven?
I hope he welcomes me. He might not say “Well done, good and faithful servant,” but if he can give me something akin to that, I would be very happy.