ROME – After what has been a tumultuous and at times painful 18 months for Catholic shepherds in the United States, Bishop James Conley of Lincoln issued a moving letter Friday saying he will take a temporary leave of absence to deal with mental health struggles.
The announcement was immediately met with an outpouring of support, with many taking to social media to offer words of comfort and assure Conley of their prayers.
In the Dec. 13 letter, the 64-year-old Conley said that for the foreseeable future, he will be on a medical leave of absence, “effective immediately.”
Conley wrote that he has been medically diagnosed with depression, anxiety, chronic insomnia and “debilitating” tinnitus, a constant ringing of the ears.
“For months, I’ve tried to work through these issues on my own through spiritual direction, counseling, and prayer,” he said, admitting that it was difficult to admit that his mental health struggles “are real health problems, and not just a defect of my character, especially during a year of difficulty for our diocese.”
“But the truth is that depression and anxiety are real psychological problems, with medical causes, requiring medical treatment,” he said, noting that ongoing physical symptoms have included a lack of energy and exhaustion.
At the direction of his doctors, Conley said he will be taking a step aside for medical and psychological treatment, “and to get some much-needed rest.”
Conley said he chose to go public with the information not only because of his friendship with many people in his diocese and beyond, but also to avoid needless worrying and speculation about his absence.
He said he also chose to be open about his health “because I hope, in some small way, to help lift the stigma of mental health issues.”
During his leave, Conley will be staying at a diocesan retreat facility in the Diocese of Phoenix at the invitation of Archbishop Thomas Olmstead, where he will receive his treatment. Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha has been named interim leader in Lincoln until Conley is able to take the reins again.
“We have planned for a smooth transition, with the full support of my senior staff,” Conley said, asking for prayer.
A convert to Catholicism, Conley is the most recent bishop in the United States whose personal health maladies have caught the public’s eye after more than a year of intense scrutiny, shame and struggle for the Catholic hierarchy in the United States.
In March Cardinal Daniel Di Nardo, the former president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), suffered a mild stroke while leading a “healing and purification” liturgy in Houston, and for months was confined to a wheelchair while he underwent treatment and recovery.
Just two weeks ago, on Dec. 1, Bishop Paul Sirba of Duluth passed away unexpectedly at 59 after suffering a heart attack while preparing for Mass.
For American Catholics, the past 18 months, which have been marred by one scandal after another, have perhaps been the most difficult in recent memory.
Since June 2018, when now ex-cardinal and ex-priest Theodore McCarrick was removed from ministry following revelations of the sexual abuse of a former altar boy and his serial sexual harassment of seminarians, the American Catholic Church has been engulfed in what many have argued is the U.S. Church’s greatest crisis since the founding of its conference over a hundred years ago.
A Pennsylvania grand jury report was then released in August, detailing over 1,000 cases of abuse at the hands of more than 300 predator priests over 70 years. Since then, the report has sparked more than a dozen states to initiate similar efforts, leading many to believe that a nationwide investigation is not only likely, but needed.
At the end of August 2018, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, former Vatican ambassador to the United States, issued an explosive 11-page letter raising charges against more than 30 prelates, including Pope Francis, charging that they knew about allegations against McCarrick, but did nothing.
Tensions appeared to increase when Francis last fall denied U.S. bishops their request for an apostolic visitation into the McCarrick case, and in November they were asked to delay voting on conference-wide measures to fight clerical sexual abuse until after a global summit on the issue took place at the Vatican in February 2019.
Since the February meeting, the bishops have continued to move forward. Yet the toll of accumulated pressures and stress are showing.
In his letter to his diocese, Conley said he was grateful to be bishop and voiced his affection for the Lincoln diocese, saying “it will be difficult to be away … Please pray for me,” he wrote, “as I pray for you.”
Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it
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