Newark's Roman Catholic archbishop on Tuesday introduced the cleric appointed by the Vatican to assist him and denied that the move was related to criticism over his handling of a sexually abusive priest.
Archbishop Bernard Hebda, recently of Gaylord, Mich., was named coadjutor archbishop for 72-year-old Archbishop John Myers, who is to retire in mid-2016 as head of the Newark Archdiocese. A coadjutor automatically succeeds the current archbishop upon retirement, transfer or death, according to a statement by the archdiocese. Myers said Tuesday he intends "to be here until I'm 75."
Myers denied that Hebda's appointment was related to the controversy over the Rev. Michael Fugee, who stepped down in May, or to accusations that he failed to take action against a priest accused of molestation when Myers was bishop of Peoria, Ill.
"Absolutely not," Myers said. "It was at my own request. That was never part of any discussion and I don't think that there are substantiated reasons for them doing so. I don't think that it's about that."
On Tuesday, Myers said he had requested a coadjutor "some time ago" because the archdiocese is undertaking several major projects and he and two other bishops are in their 70s. Hebda is 54. When asked when he made the request, Myers declined to specify.
It is very rare for an existing bishop to be made a coadjutor bishop, which is essentially a demotion; usually coadjutors are priests who are promoted to bishops to then take over for the incumbents. But clearly Hebda took the job knowing that within a few years he would be made archbishop of an important — and troubled — archdiocese serving nearly 1.5 million parishioners. He is known as something of a superstar in the U.S. church, having solid academic credentials and Vatican experience.
Asked about the three-year wait, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the naming of a coadjutor bishop signals to the flock that the governance of the diocese will continue after Myers retires. But he acknowledged that while some archbishops stay on beyond their 75th birthday, those with coadjutors resign on time.
Fugee confessed to grabbing a boy's crotch but returned to the ministry under a 2003 agreement between prosecutors and the archdiocese that stipulated he be kept from unsupervised contact with minors. Instead, authorities say, he became a fixture at a youth group and attended overnight retreats. He later resigned and was arrested. In his resignation letter, Fugee said the archdiocese did not know about his youth ministry work.
Last month, Peoria's Roman Catholic Diocese announced it would pay $1.35 million to settle a lawsuit by a former altar boy who accused late Monsignor Thomas Maloney of abusing him and accused Myers of failing to take action against Maloney. Myers testified he had not been aware of accusations against Maloney.
After the settlement, Myers sent a letter to clergy calling media coverage "deceitful and misleading" and saying of his critics among the ranks of former priests, "God will surely address them in due time."
Hebda was born in Pittsburgh and holds degrees from Harvard and Columbia School of Law. He was ordained in 1989 and beginning in 1996 served on the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts in Rome, which interprets the church's laws. He was named the Gaylord bishop in 2009.
Hebda conceded that he didn't have to handle any serious allegations of sexual abuse in Gaylord, which is much smaller than Newark's archdiocese.
"But it's the same in approaching, I think, anybody who has a hurt," he said. "Certainly the church has been involved in that in reaching out to them with that compassionate face of Christ, so that's my desire."
Hebda displayed a sense humor during the news conference, poking fun at himself for needing to emulate Myers' daily exercise regimen and noting that during his time in rural Michigan he was "probably the only bishop in America with a deer blind in his backyard."
Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.