MEMPHIS, Tennessee – One day after he was removed as head of the Diocese of Memphis, Bishop Martin Holley said that he wants to be transparent about the reasons for his removal.
He told Catholic News Agency the decision was not about mismanagement, or past allegations of sexual misconduct. Instead, he believes that he was removed at the behest of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, former Archbishop of Washington, who influenced or collaborated with apostolic nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre to excise him from episcopal ministry.
Holley said he has nothing to hide.
The bishop was removed by Pope Francis from the diocese Oct. 24, after a June Vatican investigation into Holley’s leadership in the diocese. That investigation was prompted by criticism of Holley’s 2017 decision to reassign up to two-thirds of the 60 active priests in the diocese, and his appointment of a Canadian priest, Father Clement Machado, as vicar general, moderator of the curia, and chancellor of the Diocese of Memphis.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke told reporters Wednesday that the decision to remove Holley was “about management of the diocese.”
Burke added that concerns about Holley were “not abuse-related.” Holley also told CNA that a decades-old allegation of sexual misconduct mentioned in some reports is not the reason for his removal.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl
Holley told CNA that in 2012, Wuerl was under consideration to be transferred from Washington to a high-level Vatican position, as Vatican Secretary of State. Holley was then an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Washington.
Holley says he was asked by Pope Benedict XVI to provide input on the prospect of appointing Wuerl, and that he offered testimony expressing concern about Wuerl’s fitness for the job.
Wuerl was not appointed to the position, and Holley said that his removal from the Diocese of Memphis is the cardinal’s “revenge” for impeding the appointment. Holley said Wuerl has had “disdain” for him since that time.
“I stood in his way for something he wanted,” Holley said.
Wuerl was appointed by Pope Francis in 2013 as a member of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, before Holley became Bishop of Memphis. The congregation is the office charged with overseeing the ministry of bishops around the world. Wuerl and Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago are the sole American members of the congregation.
According to Pastor bonus, the document governing the workings of the Vatican Curia, “the Congregation applies itself to matters relating to the correct exercise of the pastoral function of the bishops, by offering them every kind of assistance. For it is part of its duty to initiate general apostolic visitations where needed, in agreement with the dicasteries concerned and, in the same manner, to evaluate their results and to propose to the Supreme Pontiff the appropriate actions to be taken.”
In response to questions about Holley’s report and Wuerl’s involvement in the apostolic visitation, Wuerl’s spokesman, Ed McFadden, told CNA only that “it would appear that an Apostolic Visitation that took place in the Diocese of Memphis, and the results of that process, may have had some connection to Bishop Holley’s dismissal.”
An official in the Archdiocese of Washington told CNA Holley was not utilized as a close advisor to Wuerl or a member of the cardinal’s inner circle during his time under Wuerl’s leadership, and that his ministry involved overseeing administration in the deaneries of the archdiocese, and performing confirmations. A source close to the case, however, said that Holley had invited Wuerl to speak in the Diocese of Memphis three times during his two years there.
Holley told CNA that the June apostolic visitation to his diocese was unnecessary, and its purpose was unclear.
He said he was told the visitation was “merely to assist me in the administration of the diocese. I didn’t need any assistance.”
The bishop said that after he was installed as bishop in Memphis, he became aware of the “lack of previous governance that was here.”
“I was putting in order things that were so messed up here,” he said, noting that the diocesan tribunal was dysfunctional, and that other administrative and personnel issues had gone unaddressed by his predecessor.
Holley, who is African-American, said he met resistance because of the “racism of a few priests,” who were motivated to complain about him. One of them, he said, was a long-time associate of Wuerl.
Acknowledging that his predecessor, Bishop Terry Steib, is also African-American, Holley said that “prejudice and racism” began to manifest itself in the diocese when he began to make necessary changes.
Local media reported that several diocesan priests raised concern about Holley after his controversial transfer of priests, and after the diocese announced in January the closure of the Jubilee Catholic Schools Network, a network of schools in economically challenged neighborhoods, established in 1999 by Steib.
At the time the school closure was announced, diocesan communications director Vince Higgins told the Memphis Commercial Appeal that “This decision would have had to been made no matter… who was the bishop…The numbers were just coming to bear.”
The schools are scheduled to close after completion of this school year. A diocesan press release said that “the challenge over the years has been funding the costs of operating the schools…Funding for the schools has been provided primarily through a trust funded by very generous donors plus annual fundraising. The trust is nearly depleted and the Catholic Diocese can only fund the schools through the 2018-19 school year.”
Holley was also criticized for his appointment of Machado.
Machado was until 2016 a member of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, a society of priests headquartered in Corpus Christi, Texas. He was incardinated, or officially transferred, to the Diocese of Memphis soon after Holley was installed as diocesan bishop.
While priests transferring into a diocese often undergo an experimental period for five years, Machado’s incardination was finalized on Dec. 20, 2016, two months after Holley was installed as diocesan bishop.
“Machado is not and was not the problem,” Holley told CNA. “If I’ve known him for this long, why would I not incardinate him?”
Machado, who claims to have had visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a child, has gained an international reputation as an exorcist and as a speaker. In 2016, however, the Diocese of Corpus Christi issued a warning, indicating that Machado was “conducting exorcisms without the permission of the local ordinary.”
“Father Machado has not been given permission by the Most Reverend Wm. Michael Mulvey, Bishop of Corpus Christi, to administer the Rite of Exorcism or to serve as an exorcist,” the statement read. The diocese said it was investigating complaints raised against the priest.
Holley told CNA that he has had a long relationship with Machado, and brought him to the diocese because he needed his assistance. He did not have sufficient personnel to address the administrative needs of the diocese, and he believed Machado could help.
Machado resigned from his positions in the Diocese of Memphis on June 29, shortly after the apostolic visitation to the diocese concluded. In a letter to priests announcing Machado’s resignation, the bishop asked priests to pray “that he may successfully complete his degree in the upcoming academic year, as it will greatly benefit his service to the diocese,” Holley wrote.
But criticism of Machado in the diocese, he said, was motivated by resentment toward the administrative decisions Holley made. He said the priest was tasked with carrying out his controversial decisions, and that made him a subject of criticism.
Allegations of misconduct
After Holley’s resignation was announced, reports emerged that the bishop had been previously accused of sexual misconduct.
In 2009 a former seminarian published a blog post alleging that in 1986, Holley, who was then a deacon, “used all the creepy predator tricks to get me to give in to him sexually,” at Washington, DC’s Theological College. CNA attempted to contact the former seminarian but was unable to reach him.
A senior Church official told CNA that the complaint was forwarded to the apostolic nuncio this summer, and that it might have impacted the Vatican’s decision to remove the bishop.
Holley told CNA that the apostolic nuncio has not raised the issue with him at any time.
He told CNA that while he could not comment directly on the allegation, he is concerned the matter is being raised in order to cast aspersions on his character, linking him to bishops recently accused of predatory sexual behavior.
“I am not a part of the lavender [mafia],” he said.
“I would never belong to that evil,” he added, referring to allegations of predatory sexual behavior raised against former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and other senior Church figures.
He added that he was not particularly close to McCarrick, under whom he served for less than two years as auxiliary bishop. Sources told CNA that it is widely believed in the Archdiocese of Washington that McCarrick opposed Holley’s 2004 appointment as an auxiliary in that diocese, preferring a local candidate.
“I couldn’t help that I was his auxiliary,” he said.
The bishop added while he might have heard that McCarrick had a beach house, he had no knowledge of the prelate’s alleged predatory behavior, much of which is reported to have taken place there.
“I didn’t know anything about McCarrick,” he said. “The poor victims, my gosh.”
Most important, Holley said, in 2009 or 2010 he informed Wuerl, McCarrick, and Bishop Barry Knestout, then another Washington auxiliary bishop, about the seminarian’s allegation. He said he was “completely transparent” with Wuerl about the allegation, and that Wuerl thanked him for reporting it. McCarrick, he said, told him “not to worry about it.”
The matter was not raised again, he said.
Wuerl’s spokesman told CNA that “Cardinal Wuerl has no recollection of any conversation with Bishop Holley regarding any allegation from any period of time.”
Knestout’s spokesperson did not respond to questions from CNA before press time. McCarrick could not be reached.
Questions remain unanswered about the canonical process by which Holley was removed. While Pope Francis established in 2016 norms by which a bishop can be removed through a Vatican process, it is not clear whether that process was used in Holley’s case, or whether the Congregation for Bishops, on which Wuerl sits, was involved.
Holley told CNA that he had not spoken with Pope Francis before he was relieved of his responsibility.
He said he is not sure what next he will do. He is now 63, the ordinary retirement age for bishops is 75.
“There is evil at work here,” he said.
“This is a spiritual battle.”