NEWARK, N.J. (RNS) Pope Francis on Tuesday (Sept. 24) named a partner to Archbishop John J. Myers to govern the Archdiocese of Newark as Myers faces continuing criticism over his handling of abusive priests.
Bishop Bernard A. Hebda of Gaylord, Mich., will assist Myers in running New Jersey’s largest diocese, which has more than 1.3 million Roman Catholics across four counties. Myers has been archbishop since 2001.
Myers said he requested a coadjutor from the Vatican “some time ago,” but he declined to say when. “I don’t think I need to talk about my conversations with Rome,” Myers said.
As a coadjutor archbishop, Hebda, 54, is expected to succeed Myers upon Myers’ death or retirement. Myers is 72, about three years short of the mandatory retirement age for bishops.
Reporters peppered Myers and Hebda on Tuesday about priests who have been accused of sexual abuse. Myers said that the media have distorted his handling of abusive priests and that the archdiocese has acted aggressively to remove them from ministry and supervise them.
Advocates for victims of clergy sex abuse suggested the move was almost certainly tied to scandals that have clouded Myers’ stewardship of the archdiocese this year. During that period, one priest was arrested after violating a ban on ministry to children, and another took up residence in a parish despite a credible history of sexual abuse.
Myers also was faulted last month for missing or ignoring signs of abuse among priests during his former assignment as bishop of Peoria, Ill.
Hebda said that he was surprised but happy about his new placement and that he looked forward to the challenge. “I’m happy to hear I’m going to be busy,” he said.
Experts on the Vatican were more circumspect, noting that although the new pope may have been influenced by the troubles in Newark, the appointment could be the result of other factors, including Myers’ health or a request by the archbishop for help.
Myers rejected a claim that the appointment of Hebda was a rebuke of his administration, saying: “Absolutely not. It was my own request.”
Hebda, who comes from a small diocese in Michigan, said he had little experience with the issue. He said he would reach out to victims of abuse “with a shepherd’s heart.”
The Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter and the former editor of America, a Catholic magazine, said the appointment of coadjutor bishops has become quite rare in recent years, with just a handful now serving in the United States.
They were far more common before the mandatory retirement rule went into effect, Reese said, because aged, ailing bishops would be unable to carry out the job on their own. Myers served as coadjutor bishop for three years in Peoria before taking over the diocese there.
Reese said he had no inside knowledge of the pope’s selection of Hebda, but he praised it as a “great appointment.”
“I don’t think the pope could have found someone better,” Reese said. “He’s smart, he’s got a sense of humor, he’s very pastoral, and he’s someone who understands the sex abuse issue. He’s on the side of the angels.”
Nicholas Cafardi, a former chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People, knows Hebda from his days in Pittsburgh and briefly employed him at a law firm.
Hebda “is all the things Pope Francis says he is looking for in a bishop: a shepherd who smells of his sheep,” said Cafardi, a dean emeritus and a professor of law at Duquesne University.
Myers’ critics were cautiously optimistic about Hebda’s appointment, saying Myers had lost moral authority in Newark.
“Hopefully, he is going to make a difference,” said Mark Crawford, the New Jersey director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a national advocacy group. “Archbishop Myers is so compromised that they absolutely need to bring someone else in to run this archdiocese.
“He has not just lost the trust of the faithful, he has lost the trust of his priests,” Crawford said.