For tormented black bishop, only death ended anguish Doubt led to addiction, apparently led to AIDS


NEW YORK -- The ability to empathize and console appeared to come naturally to the Most Rev. Emerson J. Moore, the first black bishop in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York. Priests said he possessed a magic in relating to people.

His superiors noticed how he connected with suffering, considering it "almost mystical." Bishop Moore, said Cardinal John O'Connor, "was the most popular preacher in town."

"Emerson Moore had an infectious humanity, and absolutely every child who ever met him remembered him," said Monsignor Thomas Leonard, pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Manhattan. "Other bishops lose that touch of humanity."

It was a different side of Bishop Moore's humanity that people experienced when they met him at the Hazelden Foundation in Center City, Minn., a drug and alcohol treatment center.

There Bishop Moore, whose prominence was largely unknown, was another addict -- wounded, struggling. He confided to fellow patients that he had abused alcohol, cocaine and crack.

"He was a beautiful, tortured man, a man who didn't seem to have any real idea how great he was," said a former patient who met Bishop Moore at Hazelden in 1993.

"He struck me as a stranger in a strange land. I often thought he was the loneliest man I had ever met."

Bishop Moore's struggle ended Sept. 14. He was 57; his odyssey of accomplishment and anguish was over. People close to him said he died in a hospice in Minnesota. The archdiocese, in an announcement last month, said only that the bishop had died of "natural causes of unknown origin."

To many members of the Catholic clergy in the city, as well as to others aware of Bishop Moore's problems, the cryptic announcement seemed to confirm what they had long suspected: The bishop had been suffering from AIDS. Top church officials have not disputed that conclusion. It is unclear how he contracted the virus.

Cardinal O'Connor, citing his relationship with Bishop Moore's family, said he could not discuss the circumstances of his friend's death. He said only that the archdiocese had released the cause of death as it appeared on the death certificate.

But he said he would not shrink from ministering to him if one of his priests or bishops had AIDS.

For more than a decade, the Roman Catholic Church has grappled with the uncomfortable problem of clergymen with AIDS. Until recently, the issue was shrouded in silence, largely because it forces the church to deal not only with the active sexuality, but often the homosexuality, of its supposedly celibate priests.

Now the fact that there are priests with AIDS -- perhaps several hundred around the country -- has become more openly discussed.

The church has been accused of making it difficult for those priests to seek help. But friends and colleagues of Bishop Moore said the church had treated him with great care and generosity.

"There is always the assumption that the church has to protect itself," Cardinal O'Connor said. "But the church acted very honorably in assisting Bishop Moore throughout his life."

The priests and bishops interviewed for this article declined to talk openly about Bishop Moore's addictions and the details of his illness. They said they did not want to break his confidence, and they worried about the impact of such a disclosure on his family and on his former parishioners at St. Charles Borromeo in Harlem.

Bishop Moore's family -- he is survived by his father and two sisters -- declined to be interviewed.

But almost everyone interviewed acknowledged that concern had existed for years that Bishop Moore was dealing with a substance-abuse problem. He missed meetings or confirmations, had money problems, or simply disappeared for indefinite periods. And in the year before his death, he had effectively vanished from the lives of those who looked for his leadership.

To friends and colleagues, Bishop Moore was a brave trailblazer, a man who was proud of his African-American heritage, who loved his family and stayed true to his beliefs and his people and his Harlem neighborhood.

But they agreed that he often found it deeply discomforting to be a black bishop in an overwhelmingly nonblack church.

Cardinal O'Connor said that "any serious troubles Bishop Moore had were in large part attributable to the fact that he was a black bishop."

"I am convinced he believed he never would have been a bishop if he weren't black," the cardinal said. "Always he was asking himself: What am I doing here, a black kid from Harlem? Why am I a bishop? Why am I giving this talk to all these white people?

"He didn't have a problem being an ordinary black priest. But when he was singled out, he began to take on a huge burden. When he became bishop -- boom."

In the homily Cardinal O'Connor delivered last month at the funeral at St. Patrick's Cathedral, he spoke of those hardships:

"It is not enough that a black bishop be ordinarily intelligent; he is expected to be extraordinarily intelligent. It is not enough for him to preach adequately; he must preach brilliantly.

"It is not enough for him to be polite; he must be the essence of courtesy. If he speaks with pride of being black, he's racist; if he supports civil rights, he's a threat. If he praises white people, he's an Uncle Tom.

"He is expected to be a paragon of priestliness, yet be more human than the weakest among us. In short, if he can not walk on water, he's an utter failure; if he walks on water too easily, he has forgotten his 'place.' "

People who were close to Bishop Moore said they believe that the cardinal essentially diagnosed his core anguish. But they said that his troubled life underscored the need for the church to do more than empathize.

"What the cardinal said is truth, even poetry, but if we don't do anything about it, that's all it is," said Grayson Brown, a black composer and friend of the bishop. "There is a responsibility to fix the problem of how blacks exist in the Catholic Church and its hierarchy. Because when all is said and done, a black, beautiful 57-year-old man that the world needs is dead."

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