They haven’t been large-scale controversies, but the Harrisburg Catholic Diocese has in recent years been buffeted by a series of public relations crisis that have demanded swift and adept management from its top ranks.
From its bishop suggesting the public schools systems would please Adolf Hitler to a stunning clergy sex abuse case, the diocese has not been spared its share of urgent matters. Such are the challenges of running any organization.
This week, with the sudden death of Bishop Joseph McFadden, the future of the quarter-of-a-million strong diocese was passed on to a successor yet to be named.
McFadden died unexpectedly Thursday morning at the age of 65. In Philadelphia at a meeting of bishops, he complained of feeling ill and was rushed to a hospital. He was shortly after pronounced dead. No cause of death has been released.
The identity of his successor will likely not be determined for another 12 months or so, but whoever that man is, he will be tasked with a list of challenges that will determine whether the diocese charters a robust and relevant route, or one that positions it at a precarious precipice.
Catholic diocese across the nation have in recent years faced fierce scrutiny in the wake of a widespread clergy sex abuse scandal. The seeming betrayal has decimated some parishes, leaving pews in some cities empty.
The Harrisburg Diocese, which in the wake of the scandal in this country implemented an aggressive policy to protect children, has been spared the tragedy of clergy sex abuse. But, no doubt, it has been asked to speak for the church and its leaders.
At the confluence of social and economic shifts, attendance at Sunday Mass has also dwindled across the country. Enrollment at Catholic schools has felt the same brunt of changing demographics and lifestyles.
With 250,000 parishioners across 15 counties, the Harrisburg Diocese is no exception.
During his short, three-year tenure, McFadden had to make the unpopular decision to close a number of schools, amid shrinking enrollment and mounting debt.
McFadden merged Holy Family and Cathedral Consolidated schools in Harrisburg, forming Harrisburg Catholic Elementary. The merger meant cuts in teachers and staff. Holy Family Parish, the only parish associated with Holy Family school, is nearing $1 million in debt.
McFadden also closed Prince of Peace Parish School in Steelton in June 2011. The building has since been remade into a Hindu temple.
“Whoever the new bishop is he will be briefed on the status of the school choice issue,” Hill said. “We don’t see the status of that going away anytime soon.”
On a national level, the new bishop would have to monitor federal mandates that would compel religious entities to provide contraception, abortion and sterilization.
“Whoever the new bishop is, he will be faced with the decision of how do we advocate against that,” Hill said. “How do we advocate for religious liberty.”
McFadden was an outspoken national advocate for religious liberties.
And certainly efforts to reform the statutes of limitations in the state will demand the new bishop’s attention.
Victims advocates and a number of state lawmakers have for several years attempted to reform the state law that limits the legal recourse available to an adult victim of child sexual abuse.
“They have been biggest obstacle,” said state Rep. Mark Rozzi, (D-Berks) of the Catholic Church. Rozzi has been urging the Legislature to reform the statutes of limitation, which he and victims advocates say stand in the way of hundreds of adult victims of child sexual abuse seeking legal redress.
Rozzi, who this year introduced a bill that would amend that law, has long said the church has lobbied lawmakers hard to protect its interests, largely the potential financial impact from a deluge of lawsuits.
“They are an institution that tries to hide behind its good deeds,” he said.
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“We need someone in the Church to stand up and say enough is enough. We are going to stand and take responsibility instead they keep throwing different things to distract from the real problem.”
The Harrisburg Diocese several years ago put in place policies to protect children. McFadden was never named nor implicated in any of the abuse cases out of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Hill said the reform proposals put Catholic dioceses at an unfair advantage.
“Certainly it’s an issue we have many times expressed concern over a window that goes backwards,” Hill said. “A new bishop will be concerned about that as well.”