Bishop William E. Lori stands before 141 married couples in the airy sanctuary of St. Theresa Church on a bright October afternoon.
In a voice carrying the faintest trace of the Kentucky lilt that his Louisville upbringing suggests, he welcomes the couples, who have come from across the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport to this vast stone church to renew their wedding vows as part of a special service celebrating marriage.
Soon he begins his homily, focusing on the significance of religious faith, even when it collides uncomfortably with the secular world.
"Faith is a window on reality, and it is a way, a privileged way, of coming to grips with the truth," Lori says. "And for that reason, we should not be surprised that people like yourselves, who are serious about your faith, see and understand things that others don't regard as important. Not only things of heaven, but also things of earth."
Lori is on familiar ground. Since becoming bishop of Bridgeport in 2001, the confluence of the spiritual and the secular has shaped his public profile, placing him at the forefront of church-state issues in Connecticut.
He has waged a persistent and forceful legal battle to prevent the disclosure of documents relating to the clergy sex abuse scandal in the diocese and, earlier this year, he helped lead a high-profile campaign against state legislation that would have sharply altered the governance structure of Catholic parishes.
In both cases, Lori staked out a position as an energetic and outspoken defender of the church in the face of what he and his supporters view as unconstitutional government intrusion.
"It would be easy for a person who's never met him to underestimate him," says Patrick Korten, spokesman for the Knights of Columbus, where Lori serves as supreme chaplain, responsible for the spiritual health of the group's 1.7 million members worldwide. "His manner is very gentle, very kind. He is at heart a generous man who approaches the job of bishop with as much Christian love in his heart as any human being could."
But, Korten quickly adds, "beneath the soft exterior, there is real iron. It's not often that he's had to show the iron, but I guess it's [a reality] of contemporary life in Connecticut that he has been called upon to do it and he has responded in a way that is not only admirable but extraordinary."
Long BattleLori's long legal battle to keep pretrial documents relating to priest sex abuse cases from public view reached the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court. The diocese had asked the nation's highest court to hear its appeal of a state court's decision that would open the records. But last week it became clear that the Supreme Court would not take up the case. A status conference on how the documents might be made public is scheduled for Monday at Superior Court in Waterbury.
The documents relate to settlements the diocese made with 23 victims of clergy sex abuse in 2001, a year before Lori arrived in Bridgeport. The incidents of abuse took place in the 1960s and 1970s, and the claims were filed against the diocese between 1993 and 1999.
The diocese has framed the debate as a matter of two basic American principles: an individual's right to privacy, and the church's First Amendment right to, as it says on the diocesan website, "choose [its] ministers and to determine their suitability and assignments."
Many of the details contained in the documents have already been reported in the media. "The facts of the case are well known," Lori said. "It remained to defend the principles that were generated ... and that's simply all I tried to do."
He points with pride at the diocese's response to the sex abuse scandal, noting that 90,000 Catholics in the diocese have been trained to spot the warning signs of abuse.
"The Catholic Church has responded more than any other entity in society to the issue of child sex abuse," said Lori, who helped draft the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' guidelines for preventing sex abuse by clergy. "There's a point in time where that needs to be recognized, and indeed emulated, by the rest of society."
Lori's detractors have blasted his long, expensive and ultimately unsuccessful legal journey. Full disclosure, they say, is the first step toward helping the diocese heal from the trauma inflicted by the abuse scandal. (The diocese has not disclosed how much it has spent fighting the release of the documents, but according to an article in the National Catholic Reporter, the diocese received a private donation to help cover the costs and no money was used from the annual Bishop's Appeal.)
"I think the documents have to come out and it's going to be painful," said Joseph O'Callaghan, a retired Fordham University professor and parishioner at St. Jerome Church in Norwalk, one of 87 parishes in a diocese that serves more than 460,000 Catholics in Fairfield County. O'Callaghan is active in the Bridgeport chapter of Voice of the Faithful, a national organization of lay Catholics that supports victims of clergy sex abuse and is pushing for a greater role for the laity within the governance of the church.
"He's become a very great friend of the First Amendment, but that's just a ploy to divert attention from the real problem here," O'Callaghan said.
Some Catholics say Lori, in cleaning up a mess not of his making, is protecting the reputation of his predecessor, retired Cardinal Edward M. Egan.
"He's in a tough spot," said John Santa of Southport, a Fairfield County businessman who worships at the Egan Chapel of St. Ignatius Loyola at Fairfield University. "He's fighting the rear guard action for Egan, but he has to do what he has to do."
New MediaLori came to Bridgeport in 2001 from Washington, D.C., where he was auxiliary bishop.
He is among a class of bishops appointed by Pope John Paul II. As a group, they tend to be politically conservative and wary of efforts to expand the power of the laity, said Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo, a Catholic commentator and professor emeritus of Puerto Rican and Latino studies at Brooklyn College. And Lori, despite his embrace of new media — he blogs and skillfully uses the diocesan website to publish press releases and opinion pieces — fits that profile.
"He's media-friendly and charismatic, but he holds his cards very close to the vest and takes care of the institution first," Stevens-Arroyo said.
Jamie Dance, a Voice of the Faithful activist from New Canaan, said she has been disappointed by Lori's insistence on keeping the sex abuse files secret. "He came to this diocese with not a stain attached to him," she said. "There were so many avenues for him to reach out to the faithful in the pews. He had the ability to wipe the slate clean and start fresh, and he would have been beloved in the diocese."
But many Fairfield County Catholics say Lori is beloved in the diocese, and that's due, in part, to his unwavering defense of the church.
"I believe its admirable that our spiritual leader is doing his best to protect our rights and the rights of the church," said John F.X. Leydon Jr., a Stamford attorney. "Its heartwarming when someone is willing to step up and take positions that are perhaps generally unpopular. In the case of the bishop, I support his efforts."
Lori's public activism reached its peak on a rainy Wednesday in March, when he joined two other Catholic leaders, Archbishop Henry J. Mansell of Hartford and Bishop Michael R. Cote of Norwich, in addressing a crowd of more than 4,000 Catholics who were protesting a bill that would have changed the way the Catholic Church governs itself in Connecticut.
In a state where public policy is often sharply out of step with Catholic teaching, Bill 1098 was seen by many Catholics as the ultimate affront: It would have changed the governance structure of the church by essentially stripping the bishop and pastor of their authority to control parish property. The bill was pulled even before lawmakers could hold a hearing on the measure.
"The last 10 years have been a monumental challenge for the Catholic Church in the United States, and certainly in the Northeast it's been even more difficult," said state Sen. Michael McLachlan, a Danbury Republican and an active Catholic. "It's important that people of faith be aware of the political process. In many cases and in many faiths, there is a lack of interest in the government. Bishop Lori did a good job of engaging the faithful to pay attention."
Lori said he draws his strength from Jesus Christ and from prayer, from his fellow priests, and from the countless good works done by the church.
"I've been a priest for 33 years, I dearly love being a priest," Lori said. "Christ never promised us it would be easy, but he promised us he would remain with his church until the end of the world. I firmly believe that.
"I just hope at the end, when the just judge looks this all over and he looks at my ministry ... I hope he'll let me into heaven."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun