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Published: Friday, 12/10/2004

Toledo's Bishop Blair reflects on a year of crises in diocese

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR
Bishop Leonard Paul Blair on a first year full of challenges: 'I dealt with them as they came.' Bishop Leonard Paul Blair on a first year full of challenges: 'I dealt with them as they came.'
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It's been an eventful year for Bishop Leonard Paul Blair, who was installed as the seventh bishop of the Toledo Catholic Diocese on Dec. 4, 2003.

Since that solemn ceremony at Rosary Cathedral, the new bishop has faced a number of serious crises, including the arrest of one of his priests for the 1980 murder of a nun; the recommendation to close or merge 33 parishes; $1.19 million in settlements paid to 23 victims of clerical sexual abuse, and a highly publicized dispute over moving the historic Lathrop House in Sylvania.

A Detroit native who was ordained a priest in 1976, Bishop Blair, 55, said yesterday that he would "defer to others" rather than grade himself on his first year in Toledo.

But in an interview in his spartan fourth-floor office overlooking the city's downtown, the bespectacled, gray-haired bishop acknowledged that he has been through some difficult times as leader of the 314,000 Roman Catholics in the 19-county Toledo diocese.

"The toughest things I think you know," he said in response to a question. "That would include the abuse cases and the [murder] allegations against Father [Gerald] Robinson."

Father Robinson, a longtime diocesan priest, was arrested in April on charges that he stabbed Sister Margaret Ann Pahl to death in the chapel of the former Mercy Hospital in 1980. Father Robinson awaits a trial and remains free on a $400,000 property bond.

Bishop Blair said he also has struggled with a diocesan panel's recommendations to close 17 of the 157 parishes in the diocese and to merge 16 others in creating six new churches.

"Certainly, it's not in that same category [as the sexual abuse and murder cases], and I don't see it in terms of gloom and doom," he said. But the proposed closings have been difficult for the bishop.

"Those are the big things," he said. "Also, the Lathrop House was something that certainly had attention and I think was very important."

The historic wood-frame building, believed to have been part of the Underground Railroad sheltering 19th-century slaves escaping to the North, was moved several hundred yards from its original location to make room for building plans for St. Joseph Church in Sylvania, the diocese's largest parish.

Bishop Blair said no single incident or event surprised him more than others.

"I'd put it this way: Being new to Toledo and being the new bishop, I didn't have any perspective from which to judge whether these things should be a surprise or not. They were all new to me, and I dealt with them as they came."

He said that settling the lawsuits of victims of clerical sexual abuse was "a significant step that I hope will help to bring greater healing and reconciliation. But it's only a step in the sense that I don't consider that to have solved the problem."

Citing the "tremendous human toll in all of this," the bishop said the diocese is working to promote healing "with regard to what has tragically happened in the past," and to assure "vigilance for protecting our youth and our children in the future."

"I sincerely believe we are making progress," Bishop Blair said.

He said he wrote letters to abuse victims, "not only to say that I was willing to meet with them, but that I wanted to meet with them, and I think that's very important."

Several victims accepted his offer, he said, although he acknowledged he has yet to meet representatives of the Toledo chapter of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), a victims' advocacy group.

"Sadly, I don't feel that it's been possible" to meet with them, he said, "although I wouldn't rule it out for the future."

Bishop Blair, who holds a doctorate in theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, said he believes the priest shortage in the Toledo diocese and nationally reflects changes in society, not just in the church.

"There was a time when there was a strong Catholic identity and a sense of community and many young men stepped forward for the priesthood without even being asked," he said. "Those days are pretty much over."

The Toledo diocese ordained one priest this year.

Statistics show that people are postponing marriage until later in life, Bishop Blair said, and the same fear of making a lifelong commitment to a spouse is apparent in some people's hesitancy to enter the priesthood.

While some reformists are calling for the church to allow priests to marry or to ordain women, the bishop said he doesn't think such drastic changes would provide "an easy, automatic solution to our difficulties."

"It's clear that some churches that have married or women clergy are also having difficulties with regard to recruiting," he said.

Bishop Blair is facing criticism from within the ranks because some diocesan priests are not pleased with his leadership style. They contend that their new leader has not consulted them or collaborated with them, as did his predecessor, the late Bishop James Hoffman, who grew up in the diocese and served as Toledo's bishop for almost 22 years.

"Today, we've talked about pressures that I as a bishop might feel or experience here in Toledo," Bishop Blair said. "I think it's important to realize that all of our priests are also under a lot of pressure. They have a big responsibility with fewer numbers and, inevitably with a new bishop coming after over 20 years of a beloved predecessor, it is a time of change for everybody.

"It takes time for both bishops and priests to get to know one another and, certainly, I will be looking for more opportunities to meet with priests on an informal basis for us to get to know one another better and for me to personally address any questions or concerns."

Bishop Blair spent several weeks in Mexico this summer studying the Spanish language and culture.

He said he feels it is important "given the increasing number of Hispanic Catholics in the United States." He is not fluent, but can celebrate Mass and "with some help" prepare remarks in Spanish.

He said his schedule over the past year has been much more demanding than when he was auxiliary bishop and pastor of a large parish in Detroit. And it's not just the amount of time spent on the job, "it is also on your mind. The responsibility is greater."

Bishop Blair said he tries to take off one day a week, which helps him "step back a little bit at times and gather our thoughts in a peaceful way and in a relaxing way."

When he arrived in Toledo, he brought a bicycle and said bike riding is one of his favorite pastimes.

"The bike's been sitting in the garage with flat tires for over a year now because I just haven't had time," he said. "But I can see a day when I might be able to fill those tires up and get out there in the Metroparks when the weather gets a little better."

Contact David Yonke at:

dyonke@theblade.com or

419-724-6154.



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