The 62-year-old Bishop Fisher – until now an auxiliary of Washington, DC – received his episcopal consecration from Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, but he came up under the late Cardinal James Hickey and really rose under Theodore Edgar “Uncle Ted” McCarrick, who brought him to the Washington, DC chancery in 2005.
Cardinal Wuerl did not exactly distinguish himself by his candor, either, when the McCarrick business began to come to light. The headlines were darkly comical: CNA’s “Wuerl denies prior denials denied knowledge of McCarrick seminarian abuse,” was a grim favorite. Eventually, he lost the confidence of his own presbyterate and the faithful in his charge, and that was the end of a highly intelligent, otherwise capable, and thoughtfully moderate Churchman’s career.
It isn’t that Bishop Fisher is bad at being either a bishop or a human. Coming as he does from that milieu, however, his appointment looks like a real head-scratcher, especially at first blush. There may be an explanation. It is not an encouraging one, but there is a way to make sense of the business.
“Tone-deaf,” was how one veteran Church watcher described the Fisher appointment to me – but that’s not it at all. Tone-deaf was Pope Francis naming Cardinal Roger Mahony (inexplicably emeritus of Los Angeles) to be the papal representative at the sesquicentennial celebration of the founding of the Scranton, Pennsylvania diocese in 2018. Happily, Cardinal Mahony suddenly discovered he had, well, anything else to do.
This is something else.
Whether because it is tone-deaf. or because of some other reason or constellation of reasons, that Bishop Fisher continues to rise is cause for perplexity. After all, stopping a man’s rise is easy enough — and stopping a man’s rise, who came up under the poster boy for evil and corruption, is not punishment. It is sane management. That Bishop Fisher’s rise didn’t stop under Cardinal Wuerl speaks to Wuerl’s disregard for good governance, the health of the faithful, and common sense. In this sense, that his rise continues under Francis really is a head-scratcher.
It’s easy to see the Fisher appointment as either apathy or a deliberate one-fingered salute to the whole US – those aren’t mutually exclusive options – and must, to some extent, be a little from Column A and a little from Column B, but that doesn’t necessarily imply meanness or callous disregard.
It could be a failure of imagination, or – what’s more likely and more frightening – Bishop Fisher reasonably appeared to be the least bad available option in circumstances that offered exactly zero good ones.
Francis certainly wasn’t ever going to go local.
Bishop Fisher succeeds Bishop Richard J. Malone, who resigned late last year after an Apostolic Visitation that was at the very best a failed PR exercise – going through the absolute bare minimum necessary motions – in the middle of increasingly intense public scrutiny that had already gone on nearly two years.
Albany’s Bishop Edward Scharfenberger took the reins temporarily, but was a placeholder and everyone knew it from Day One. Scharfenberger oversaw the early phases of Buffalo’s bankruptcy, which the diocese sought in February of this year, and tried to begin some healing initiatives, but the faithful of Buffalo will only find healing on the other side of a reckoning.
When New York State opened its lookback window on sexual abuse claims last year, a veritable deluge of lawsuits – 168 of them by September of 2019 – inundated Buffalo.
Late last month, New York’s Attorney General sued the Buffalo diocese and named two former bishops in the suit as well as Bishop Scharfenberger. The lawsuit alleges abuse coverup and misuse of charitable funds to support bad actors in the clergy.
Buffalo is a cesspool, the clergy demoralized and the faithful exhausted.
One in leadership is tempted to look outside the circle in times like these, but outsiders present a very different set of dangers. They don’t know the game, they don’t know the rules, and they don’t know the players. Bringing in an outsider to “drain the swamp” sometimes looks like a great idea on paper, but at least as often as not ends up with the insiders running roughshod over the new man before he has a chance to begin his work.
A leader from outside – even one with a strong personality, like Francis, who can do some things outside the system – can’t do without his underlings.
Sometimes, you pick the bad man in order to avoid picking the worse one. Sometimes, picking a decent fellow and hoping for the best is just plain irresponsible. Sometimes, wasting a good man in a bad job is the worst possible thing.
It’s far too early to say what kind of a choice Francis really has made with Bishop Fisher, who deserves a chance in any case, but it does not take great feats of fancy to imagine the difficulty of the choice for the man who made it.
Remember, the mess we’re in is Francis’s responsibility because he sits in the big chair, but it isn’t his fault. He hasn’t distinguished himself by his leadership – certainly not by his appointments – but he has slim pickings, and that’s not wholly or even primarily the result of his doing. His recent predecessors have much for which to answer.
Nor is Francis stupid.
He must know the optics of this are atrocious, but there’s something to be said for not caring about them. Also, fresh blood isn’t necessarily any better than the tainted blood one has to hand, and can be worse. Sometimes, bad situations are just what they are.
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