The Catholic faithful of Duluth, Minnesota were excited in June of this year, when they learned they would be getting a new shepherd after the untimely death of Bishop Paul Sirba in December of last year. That excitement turned into something else last week, when the Vatican announced that Bishop-elect Michel Mulloy had renounced his election before he had been consecrated and installed.
Fr Mulloy was ordained a priest of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in 1979. He spent very little time, however, in the diocese for which he was ordained. The Diocese of Rapid City, also in South Dakota, was where he spent most of his time. Mulloy was incardinated in Rapid City in 1986. Fr. Mulloy served in various capacities throughout the years, including under then-Bishop Blase Cupich, who led the Church in Rapid City from 1998-2010.
The statement in the daily bulletin from the Press Office of the Holy See on September 7th gave no reason for the resignation, but a flurry of statements from the three dioceses most closely involved in the business quickly made it clear that Fr. Mulloy had an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor against him.
“[O]n August 7, 2020, the Diocese of Rapid City received notification of an allegation against Father Mulloy of sexual abuse of a minor in the early 1980’s,” said the statement Rapid City issued—also on September 7th—and further noted that Rapid City has no other allegations of sexual abuse against Fr. Mulloy.
One would not parse too much or too closely, but there is a difference between receiving an allegation and receiving notification of an allegation, and there is a difference between Rapid City not having other allegations and no one having other allegations.
The Catholic Herald asked Rapid City to clarify the point. Rapid City’s chancellor, Margaret Simonson, told us she could not comment on an ongoing investigation. That blanket response covered queries regarding other particulars, including whether Rapid City knows of any other jurisdiction that has any allegations against Fr. Mulloy, and whether Fr. Mulloy protests innocence. None of the September 7th statements say whether Fr. Mulloy has denied the allegation, and the priest has been unreachable for comment.
The Holy See Press Office, meanwhile, referred requests for further information to Rapid City.
It’s a pickle, as the saying goes, and one can see why. If there were nothing more to this story than an old incident that came to Church officials’ attention because Fr. Mulloy had his name in the paper when he got the Duluth job, it would have been easy to spin as a victory for reform.
Churchmen responded promptly, following protocol, and determined to investigate further. Praise for the alleged victim would be in order in any case. A word would not be out of place, about how the Church understands and respects victims’ decisions but encourages anyone and everyone with information about bad actors to come forward.
In other words: if the system worked, why not say so?
But that pesky phrasing about “notification” etc. leaves open more than one possibility: either an old incident never came to light before now; or, the whole situation went horribly wrong right from the get-go, and an allegation of abuse had been so thoroughly covered up that the alleged perpetrator of it came within a hair’s breadth of being consecrated bishop and installed in his see.
In any case, the situation raises immediate questions: How did Fr. Mulloy come to be considered for the job, let alone shortlisted, let alone chosen? Who recommended him? Who vetted him? Were any of them ever in a position to know of any allegation there might have been against Mulloy (or anyone else)? Who else has Fr. Mulloy’s patron recommended, and when, and to what sees?
In a halfway functional society, such questions would already have led to the appointment of a special prosecutor with an investigative mandate wide as the span of the Great Plains and a blank cheque with which to pursue said mandate. Pope Francis gave the Church that option when he promulgated Vos estis lux mundi, the sweeping reform law that was supposed to facilitate reporting and streamline investigations of possible abuse and coverup.
One hopes the business is cleared up before too long, but there is little reason to believe it will be and exactly no reason for anyone to wait with breath abated. No one may be faulted at this point for reaching the conclusion that the leadership of the Church are basically trolling the faithful.
In any case, Pope Francis is apparently reluctant to use the very instrument he designed and fashioned to purpose, while Church leaders’ promises of transparency in these regards – from the pope, down – have long since ceased to be credible.
Christopher R. Altieri is Rome Bureau Chief and International Editor of the Catholic Herald. His most recent book is Into the Storm: Chronicle of a Year in Crisis (416pp. TAN Books, 2o2o).
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