National Post online
August 24, 2010 – 2:35 pm
By John Sainsbury
Reprinted in 25 August 2010 print edition as “St. Catharine’s Runaway Bishop.”
In April, Bishop James Wingle abruptly quit his post as head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Catharines, Ont., and disappeared overnight from public view.
An erudite and staunchly orthodox man, Wingle also was gregarious and well-liked by his flock. Local Catholics, many cognizant of their catechism’s injunction that “the faithful should be closely attached to the bishop as the Church is to Jesus Christ,” received news of his mysterious departure with puzzlement. In a terse email, posted on the diocese website, Wingle cited lack of “stamina” for his decision, and said that he was taking a sabbatical “centred on prayer and personal renewal.” However, he also made reference to his “shortcomings and limitations,” which, though unspecified, predictably fuelled some ugly speculation in the blogosphere about the real motive for his abdication.
The mystery of his whereabouts was resolved on July 31 — the same day that a front-page story appeared in the St. Catharines Standard under the banner headline “Where on earth is Bishop Wingle?” In an email message to Monsignor Wayne Kirkpatrick, the temporary administrator of the diocese, Wingle wrote that he was living in Jerusalem (there had been unconfirmed reports of his presence there), matter-of-factly revealing that he would now spend time “doing some writing and research on a catechetical-pastoral project.”
On instructions from Kirkpatrick, Wingle’s message was read to congregations the following day and copies were posted on church bulletin boards. The message, however, offered no explanation of why he left town in the first place, and there is a lingering apprehension that another shoe is yet to drop.
The episode merits attention for a number of reasons. To begin with, Wingle’s course of action is unusual; there are few acceptable grounds upon which one can resign from a bishopric. There are reports that Wingle was in poor health, that he was suffering from chronic back pain, perhaps even from prostate cancer. He was also mourning the death of his nephew in a car accident. Yet one might think that illness and bereavement would cause a bishop to draw closer to his flock, finding strength and comfort in its solicitude and prayers. And with no convincing explanation for his actions being offered by Wingle or other church officials, the rumour mills are working overtime to fill the void.
The circumstance underscores a familiar problem. The Church is notoriously resistant to the release of any information about the conduct of its clergy. The cry of “cover up” is the predictable public response, yet church policy is rooted in the centuries-old notion that any involvement in the spread of scandal is a serious offence on the grounds that scandal reveals sinful behaviour to the laity, who might then be induced to imitate it.
There might have been a practical basis for such a position in the Medieval era. But in the modern era, the silence of the Church leaves the spread of information — true, false, or simply unverifiable — in the hands of others, who do not always have the best interests of the Church at heart.
Already, speculation about Wingle’s departure has become entangled with court proceedings against local priests accused of sexual abuse. Wingle himself reportedly had a policy of zero-tolerance for abusers. But questions linger about his involvement (or perhaps his studied detachment) in the case of the disgraced former priest Donald Grecco. Two weeks before Wingle’s resignation, Grecco pleaded guilty to sexually molesting three former altar boys while serving as a parish priest in the diocese; he awaits sentencing pending a report on his health. During court hearings, it emerged that one of the victims had complained to the diocesan authorities in 2005, but that no action was taken. On March 18, Wingle instructed his priests not to speak with the media about Grecco.
In fairness, Wingle might have been showing a punctilious regard for legal due process. But in the meantime, the laity of the diocese soldiers on without a bishop (the Vatican is often laggardly in finding replacements) and with distracting rumours swirling around the head of the one it has just lost.
Which brings us to the final reason why this story is important: It demonstrates yet again the resilience, forbearance and practical autonomy of the Catholic laity. In the diocesan Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria, the congregation listened stoically as Wingle’s message was read to them. Many were elderly; most were probably working class. Successive waves of Catholic immigrants were represented, from the Irish (the founding fathers of the cathedral) to the Filipinos. With the exception of a sprinkling of Brock University faculty, none could look forward to a sabbatical for personal renewal of the sort that their former bishop has granted himself. Yet one knows that their good works and their marvellous associational and devotional life will continue, despite the frailty and whimsicality of their spiritual leaders.
John Sainsbury is a professor of history at Brock University, and a member of the congregation of the Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria.