Vicar General, Moderator of the Furious

Fr. Richard Erikson’s column in this weekend’s edition of The Pilot on the process of planning parish “re-reconfiguration” is the topic of the next few posts.  But we would be remiss to not add a few words about what we are seeing and hearing of Fr. Erikson before we get into the details. And you should check out our latest post on sham searches before reading further if you have not read it already.

Fr. Erikson, who holds the roles of Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia, is rapidly adding “Moderator of the Furious” to his portfolio based on the emails we are getting from lay people and clergy.  That is  simply the reality of the many messages we are receiving, and since he is probably a well-intentioned person, he needs to know this in order to improve things.

Based on everything we hear, things at 66 Brooks Drive are careening out of control, morale is very low, and the Vicar General –who has at least partially contributed to the sad situation—is reported to want out, so he can go back to his chaplaincy work doing grief counseling in the Air Force on active duty, full-time.

On paper (and in his Air Force biography), he is supposed to be the primary administrator of the Archdiocese, but as we have documented, that is not the case in reality.  The archdiocese is in fact being administered and run primarily by the Chancellor, Fr. Bryan Hehir, and Jack Connors.   Add in Carol Gustavson and Terry Donilon for execution on the Connors/Hehir/McDonough regime’s vision and that is the primary administrative leadership.  If you look at his biography, aside from his degree in politics, you will see that Fr. Erikson had never been pastor in a parish previously or been in any kind of major operational role that would effectively prepare him for the political hornets nest of the Boston chancery.  How could one coming into this role be prepared for, hypothetically speaking, a situation like perhaps returning from time out of the office to find the Chancellor has maneuvered to now report directly to the Cardinal instead of to the Vicar General?  Or hypothetically speaking, perhaps being among the last people in the “inner circle” to learn the chancery was moving from Brighton to Braintree?

Anyway, administration is a bit of a mess today as best as we have come to understand. People cannot get responses from the archdiocese on basic questions.  Clergy cannot get time with the Cardinal when he is in town, and he heads to Dublin shortly.  People writing to Fr. Erikson in the past 1-2 days asking about four things—names of current members of the Archdiocesan Finance Council, the status of the whistleblower policy, status of the search for Secretary of Institutional Advancement, and the appropriate protocol for filing a complaint and getting a response—got an email back from Fr. Erikson with the Mass Catholic Conference search press release about that search, and nothing about the 4 points they had asked about. Is that representative of how his office responds to other requests?  If so, is anyone else wondering what the path ahead looks like between now and when he heads back to full-time active duty with the Air Force?  That timeframe is rumored to be around mid 2011.

Beyond the above objectively verifiable observations, Fr. Erikson also was the spokesman/mouthpiece for major changes like the downgraded clergy retirement & benefits plan that he will never need to fully live off of, as he gets a pension from 28+ years of service in the Air Force Reserves.

Assuming rumors flying around are true, then any day now he will also likely have to “spin” how people at the highest levels of the Archdiocese deceived us all about an open worldwide search for the  new Secretary of Institutional Advancement–a role that on paper actually reports to the Vicar General.  See yesterday’s post on “Sham Searches” and the associated comments. Questions will be asked about what he, Cardinal O’Malley, and Jim McDonough knew–and when they knew it.

When Fr. Erikson first started, priests and chancery staff had high hopes for him because he had everything the previous strong-willed Vicar General, Bishop Richard Lennon, had lacked — a counseling approach, readiness to use email, no baggage from time in archdiocesan parishes or the chancery, and a willingness to listen.  But as soon as Chancellor McDonough began his reign and power-grabbing moves in 2006, it became clear that Fr. Erikson was completely disabled and had little authority over key decisions or personnel decisions, so Fr. Erikson has become somewhat marginalized.  We are told by several pastoral center staffers that Fr. Erikson has also apparently confused military-style rank with true leadership.  Whether people liked the previous Vicar General or not on a personal basis and whether he was necessarily right or wrong on an issue, at least with Bishop Lennon  things were black-and-white, and you knew his main agenda was keeping the train on the tracks.  In the interest of full disclosure, this writer was not a Bishop Lennon fan based on his communications style in brief personal interactions with him.  But that does not change the impression this writer and many other people had that he was acting from a unwavering sense of what was best for the Church and best for the salvation of souls.

This is not the case any more in this archdiocese–as evidenced by what this blog has been documenting in recent months.

Cardinal O’Malley is ultimately reponsible for the current state of affairs and allowing the Connors/Hehir/McDonough regime to rule. Fr. Erikson, by virtue of his role as Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia, is one of several people who still must shoulder some responsibility for contributing to the current situation. We give you this post as background to the “re-reconfiguration process,” so you know you will have to carefully pull-back the layers of spin or deceptive jargon in much of what you will hear from Fr. Erikson and/or others.  This will take us several posts to explain, and for the benefit of those who like shorter posts, we are saving more detailed commentary for our next exciting episode on Saturday.

Meanwhile, we urge those readers who have written to the Vicar General  as we suggested two days ago and got a lame irrelevant response to send him an email back [Vicar_General(at)rcab.org], and cc: his special assistant, Fr. Bryan Parrish [ReverendBryan_Parrish(at)rcab.org].  If you have not yet written to him, copy and paste the text from this post, and let us know how you make out.

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10 Responses to Vicar General, Moderator of the Furious

  1. Pastoral Center Employee says:

    I agree with your assessment, especially about him being marginalized and outside of key decisions, but you guys missed something important. You missed saying something about the Vicar General’s affinity for Sammy Davis Jr music. He also seems like he is traveling away from the Pastoral Center an awful lot. I thought reservists had to do two weeks of active duty per year and one weekend a month, but he seems to be out more than that.

  2. Disgusted Boston Priest says:

    The man said he didn’t want the job when he was asked to do it by Cardinal Sean. Whether he had a distaste for administration, or whether he was a careerist in the service, or whether he just liked being away from the scrutiny of his brother priests in the Archdiocese, you’ve got to admit that he told us he didn’t want to do the job.

    You know, it’s been my experience that when you don’t like your job you’re less likely to be committed to it. You’re more apt to find reasons to delegate responsibilities to others. You’re more likely to “sneak away” when you can. And you’re less likely to respond to anyone who criticizes the way you do the job (if you don’t enjoy the work, who cares what other people think of how well you do it?).

    I admire the fact that he took the position under obedience (remember obedience?), but upon reflection, I think the Cardinal should have paid more attention to what Rich was saying.

    And by the way, your point is particularly appropriate about his not having to worry about the penury into which his policies will throw a good number of his brother priests. After not serving in the Archdiocese for many years, all the while enjoying a considerably-elevated salary in the military, I’m sure he’s been able to sock a few shekels aside for his retirement. And I’m also certain that, in addition to his very generous military pension, Rich will take full advantage of whatever funds are still available in the diocesan fund whenever he retires.

    And while we’re at it – does anybody beside me think that he wants to get back to the military to jump another pay grade? That way his pension – which is based upon his highest pay grade – will be even more ameliorated.

    This guy’s our best and brightest? Color me cynical.

  3. Charlie says:

    I sent the VG my concerns; he responded with the say-nothing press release, as you said happened to others. I responded with – “Hel-lo! This says nothing…” and so Fr. Parrish sent a reply that – while addressing the four questions asked – also says nothing in a better way. Frustrating.

  4. FanofFatherRich says:

    I admire Father Erikson. He really is a good man and one heck of a priest. Anyone would be fortunate to have Father Erikson baptize them, provide them first communion, celebrate their funeral, last rites, and wedding, and to counsel them during times of strife.

    That said I’d like to make a few points in response to the Blog post and some of the above comments:

    1. It seems fair to hold the Vicar General responsible for what happens with the organization that he leads. The points made on this blog and other blogs point to real concerns in Braintree. If Erikson doesn’t intervene to address some of these issues, when only he and the Cardinal have the power to do something about them, then both can and should be held accountable for their action and/or inaction. But how much accountability should be placed on him, versus Cardinal O’Malley, or versus those acting in a cronyistic, nepotistic, power hungry way?

    2. Should it really be Father Erikson’s job to rein in McDonough, Connors, Kaneb, Hehir etc.? Or should it be Cardinal O’Malley’s? Father Erikson wasn’t responsible for McDonough’s hiring nor for inviting in Connors and Kaneb to positions of influence. He’s just working with Cardinal O’Malley’s “team.”

    3. It is ADMIRABLE that Father Erikson has taken this job as Vicar General even though he’d personally prefer to be in a much more pastoral role as a chaplain or parish priest. It’s not his fault that Cardinal O’Malley wants him to be his Vicar General. If Father Erikson expressed his concerns to Cardinal O’Malley about his abilities/interest and Cardinal O’Malley still asked him to serve then we should hold Cardinal O’Malley responsible for that and thank Father Erikson for following through on his vow of obedience.

    4. To suggest that Father Erikson wants to go back to the Military for the MONEY is ABSURD. Anyone who has spoken to Father Erikson about his service as a chaplain hears him say that there is such a desperate need for chaplains, particularly Catholic priests, in the military. He wants to serve there because he can tangibly make Christ present to the troops. Who wouldn’t want a priest to want to be on the front lines vs. be an administrator? Don’t fault Father Rich for wanting to perform priestly not administrative tasks.

    5. The Vicar General’s role is such an important one and such a difficult one. Whoever occupied that seat would have strengths and weaknesses. That’s true of any significant leadership position. Anyone that thinks that Father Erikson is “the problem” in Braintree doesn’t understand the situation. If his main weakness is that he doesn’t rein in McDonough, Connors, Kaneb, Hehir etc. should ask themselves 2 questions: (a) why does it make sense to change the VG instead of clearing out those “power brokers”?; (b) will any Vicar General, even the most courageous and confrontational, be able to root out those power brokers if Cardinal O’Malley isn’t behind it?

    6. The Vicar General’s office isn’t responsible for the difficulty priests are having getting meetings with the Cardinal or in not getting their letters returned. That is the Cardinal’s Office. The Cardinal’s Office staff has been signifantly reduced over the past few years while the Chancellor’s office is still fully staffed. That’s the Chancellor’s fault (for proposing changes that would leave the Cardinal’s office without proper staffing) and the Cardinal’s fault (for allowing those staff reductions) to occur. Father Kickham, not Father Erikson, is responsible for assisting the Cardinal to prioritize (or not) meetings with priests.

    7. To those that criticize him for going away on his military service – for the record, he works 80-100 hours per week on Pastoral Center work in addition to helping out at Holy Name in West Roxbury and other places.

    In summary, Erikson is a great priest who is in a job that the Cardinal has asked him to do. He’s giving great effort and doing his best. Those that see him as “the problem” are focusing on the wrong issues. The Cardinal has picked some lousy “friends” and a politically-connected Chancellor, and has let them run wild. Why would we put responsibility for all that on the Vicar General?

    • Fan of FatherRich,

      Thank you for your insightful comments. Even though we are not sure every point you made is directed at the blog for our original post (vs to people who have commented), since you have taken a lot of effort to articulate these points, we will respond to them as best as we can.

      1. Glad to see that we mostly agree here! If you have been reading this blog regularly, hopefully you see that we have been reporting on factual information about a range of governance problems and concerns. The main concerns we have documented lie with the people pictured in the pink box in this picture.

      Fr. Erikson as Vicar General and Cardinal O’Malley as Archbishop of Boston obviously have the main canonical responsibility for administration and governance. We do not think we suggested in any way that Fr. Erikson should be held accountable for all of the problems. As you aptly observed, accountability rests on the shoulders of a number of people, including Fr. Erikson, Cardinal O’Malley and various members of the Cardinal’s senior leadership team.

      2. Mostly agreed. Fr. Erikson was not responsible for McDonough’s hiring or inviting in Connors and Kaneb to positions of influence. In response to your question, Cardinal O’Malley would be most directly responsible for reining in “his team.” But, the Vicar General is the #2 canonical role, so one might reasonably ask what the VG’s reaction has been to all of the cronyism, conflicts of interest, and corruption he sees first-hand or may have personally experienced. How strongly is he objecting to these moves? Why has he allowed himself to become marginalized and his authority undermined? Why does he tolerate it? Why not threaten to quit and/or follow-through and leave if you no longer have the governance authority to do your job? How, why, and when was control of the hiring process for the development chief wrested from his control? If the VG is the principled person you suggest he is from personally knowing him, then why is the VG publicly criticizing the Catholic blogs, saying he refuses to read them, and defending problem Cabinet members by maligning the blogs instead of acknowledging the legitimate issues raised and being a champion of addressing those issues?

      3. This seems to relate to one of the comments, rather than what the blog posted.

      4. This seems to relate to one of the comments, rather than what the blog posted. We have no doubt about the need for chaplaincy services in the military, and the blog did not question Fr. Erikson’s motives in wanting to serve in this pastorally important role.

      5. We would agree. If you look over the past 3-4 months, you will see that the blog has not characterized Fr. Erikson as “the problem” in Braintree, but we think you and most people would agree he is part of it. We agree Cardinal O’Malley would need to be supportive of clearing out the “power brokers” and others responsible for the problems documented on this blog. Canonically, the VG should have and be able to demand that authority today. That is not the case and it has been allowed to go on this way for about 4 years. Since reports are rampant that Fr. Erikson wants out, it could fall on a new courageous and confrontational VG to ensure he comes in the front door with the authority and freedom to clean-up the mess.

      6. Agreed, with respect to the Cardinal’s office. But this is not just an issue with the Cardinal’s office. The VG’s own office, and certain offices that fall under the scope of responsibility of the VG, are also seen as unresponsive.

      7. This seems to relate to one of the comments, rather than what the blog posted.

      In your concluding comments, you said, “The Cardinal has picked some lousy “friends” and a politically-connected Chancellor, and has let them run wild.” What we have documented on this blog would seem to validate that comment.

      We believe every Catholic who is troubled by the corruption in the Archdiocese of Boston and cares about the future of the Catholic Church in Boston–priests, religious, pastoral center employees, laity, donors, parish or school employees–should do whatever is within their scope of authority, responsibility, and influence to complain about and/or try to address the problems they see. (For priests and religious or those employed under a “bad egg” in the RCAB especially, you need to avoid the very real risks of retaliation and threats to your livelihood). Every voice that is able to needs to directly tell the Cardinal (and probably the Holy Father at this point) that every day this situation continues does more and more harm to the ability of the Archdiocese to continue doing her good works. Send this post and the comments to the Vicar General, and ask him, as the #2 canonical leader, what he is doing about all this. If he is taking the legitimate concerns raised on this Catholic blog seriously, unfortunately his reaction to us and to a variety of people writing directly to him does not reflect that, and in fact suggests denial of the problems.

      Thanks again for writing. We welcome your follow-up thoughts after you check in with him.

      • Michael says:

        WHAT A JOKE … Fr. Erikson is a victim …

        FANOFFATHERRICHSAYS:

        3. It is ADMIRABLE that Father Erikson has taken this job as Vicar General even though he’d personally prefer to be in a much more pastoral role as a chaplain or parish priest. It’s not his fault that Cardinal O’Malley wants him to be his Vicar General. If Father Erikson expressed his concerns to Cardinal O’Malley about his abilities/interest and Cardinal O’Malley still asked him to serve then we should hold Cardinal O’Malley responsible for that and thank Father Erikson for following through on his vow of obedience.

        Under this theory since Father Erikson didn’t want his position, and Cardinal O’Malley didn’t want his position and … what the heck, … Pope Benedict XIV didn’t want his position … then all of the problems in the archdiocese are Jesus’ fault …

        WHAT A JOKE. FATHER ERIKSON OUGHT TO USE SOME OF THAT COURAGE HE ALLEGEDLY HAS TO STAND UP FOR SOMETHING!

        So what has Fr. Erikson done about the Archdiocese giving away Catholic hospitals … forever?

        What has Fr. Erikson done about the Archdiocese/Catholic Charities waiving the white flag and surrendering Catholic adoptions … forever? And blazing a trail for the rest of the world (see England)?

        What has Fr. Erikson done about the Archdiocese giving away Catholic innocence in Catholic Schools … forever? What has Fr. Erikson done about Cardinal O’Malley’s flip flops on the Hingham gay agenda fiasco – I am behind Fr. Rafferty … oh no I’m not!

        What has Fr. Erikson done about the fact that while O’Malley stood next to Romney (the Father of Gay Marriage) claiming to be against gay marriage, Massachusetts (and the Archdiocese of Boston) again blaze a trail for the rest of the world (see Connecticut, Iowa, Texas, Rhode Island, Maine, California, etc. etc. etc.)?

        What has Father Erikson done? He’s a victim. WHAT A JOKE.

  5. Disgusted Boston Priest says:

    to FanofFatherRich – Perhaps it seemed that I condemned the Vicar General in ways that I did not intend; if so, I apologize.

    However, there are a couple things that need to be said. While I commend him and other priests who serve in the military, they can’t be in two places at once. They are not serving in the Archdiocese. So somebody else has to do that work.

    Every priest today works a minimum of 80-100 hours per week, not just Fr. Rich. We all do the administration and desk work that he does at the Pastoral Center, and we also do all of the meeting with parents about the parish school, the struggling with the budget, the work of building community, increasing the collection, dealing with aging properties and reconciling the two thousand different opinions about EVERYTHING that comes with being a pastor of a parish. We also get up at 3am to answer a hospital call, or to anoint somebody whose family hasn’t been near a church for 20 years but wants Grandma to “get a blessing.” Yes, Fr. Rich is hard working, but so are all the rest of us. And the fact that there are brother priests not laboring in parishes with us means that we have to work harder. I’m not complaining, mind you, I’m just stating facts. And by the way, “helping out in a parish” (in Boston chancery priest-speak) means “I go there to say one Mass each weekend and get a nice check for $100 or more for my time.” Believe me, saying Mass on Sunday is the kind of help a pastor needs least.

    And as to Fr. Rich’s work in the Air Force, do you realize that he was just promoted to (I believe) Chief of Chaplains before he was called back? There’s not a lot of ministering to servicemen and women in that position – it’s an administrative job. Like any officer in the military, the further up the chain of command you go, the less direct interaction you have with the grunts. Fr. Rich wouldn’t be going back to spend all his time “ministering” so much as he would be pushing paper. Again, just stating facts.

    In sum, while I don’t think Fr. Rich is “the problem,” I do think he’s part of it. And he’s certainly not been part of the solution. To serve as a diocesan priest, you have to be in love with parishes and the people who make them up. It’s our charism – to live with the people where they live, and to love them as Jesus loves us (sacrifically). Any priest who’s spent such a substantial part of his priesthood away from the diocese in which he’s incardinated has found a greater love for something other than his diocese.

  6. Angry Parish Council Member says:

    I agree with Disgusted Boston Priest.

    FanofFatherRich, are you confusing job performance vs him being a nice person? “He is a good man and one heck of a priest. Anyone would be fortunate to have Father Erikson baptize them, provide them first communion, celebrate their funeral, last rites, and wedding, and to counsel them during times of strife.”

    OK, so let’s give him an “A” for being a good priest in one-on-one pastoral ministry. What would his grade be in terms of the job performance–and results–as Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia for the past 4 years?

    I think the blog is going too easy on him. As Disgusted Priest said, has he been part of the solution? Were Bishop Lennon in the job, would he have tolerated this corruption? If you can’t do a job effectively–due to your own shortcomings, desires to do something else, organizational factors outside of your control, or whatever–then are you not obligated to tell the boss and move on?

  7. Objective Observer says:

    Cardinal O’Malley seems to have sought as much contrast to Richard Lennon as possible when he began looking for a new VG in 2005. A bishop would have had too much leverage, so he needed someone who would be non-confrontational and content to not be elevated to the episcopacy. He also needed someone who would be a calming counselor for the cardinal himself. Seemingly a priest with no RCAB baggage, with a Ph.D. in social Work/Counseling, and with some administrative experience in the military looked good. But the cardinal succumbed to the classic mistake many schools make when they make their best teacher principal. The school ends up losing a very good teacher, and picking up an inexperienced, even mediocre principal. When he tapped Erikson, the cardinal took a really good member of the presbyterate and put him in a job for which he had no preparation and, frankly, no specific competence.

    VG is not a promotion, it’s a lateral move for someone who can master the complexity of a diocese, especially the overall supervision of priests and parishes. It is a serious mistake to make your best teacher your school principal, and it is possibly a more serious mistake to make a very good, pastoral priest the VG. A VG might even be a lousy parish priest because he needs the ability to implement decisions that could disappoint the faithful short term. The canonical office of VG, like parenthood, is not a popularity contest, it’s about managing for the long term best interest of all involved. This can be very lonely, and while essential to running a diocese, it can feel anything but pastoral.

    Father Richard Erikson, no question, is a good and holy priest. A great big parish full of kids, working class people and elderly are missing out on a man who would be a superb pastor. So, point one is, can we afford to have him caged up on this little running wheel where he is not free to care for the people of God, as diocesan priests are called to do, and not free to manage the diocese? How many former VGs have happily transitioned to pastor a big parish? None in recent memory, because they tend to become bishops. Something has to give.

    My prayer for Father Erikson is that he be called back to the Military diocese as an auxiliary bishop. This would give him the chance to supervise military chaplaincy; help determine changes of orders based on compassion; travel to military bases for Confirmations, etc.; and travel to visit deployed men and women. And if he were based at a large US installation, he could interact with military families and retirees, and put his significant background in compassion back to work. He’d probably also manage to have more time to spend with his Boston-area family than he does now, as he is spread quite thin shuttling between his role as VG and his multi-week military stints.

    Boston needs a VG who understands how the Church must work, and who cannot be hoodwinked or disabled by ridiculous pretenders like McDonough. As the months and years pass by, Boston suffers and Father Erikson suffers. An orderly transition is not possible in an upside-down diocese, so better to limit the duration of the suffering. No matter how carefully planned the transition, it cannot yield benefit under these circumstances.

    Unsolicited advice to Father Erikson: Discern in prayer, attain clarity, and act on that clarity with courage in order to do God’s will. Surely then the chaos that thrives at 66 Brooks will slip into your past, and you can greet the future of your priesthood with joyful tears of consolation. AMDG

  8. We think Objective Observer has summarized this very well, and with clarity and insight that we were not able to bring in our original post or response. Thanks very much for taking the time to share your insightful perspectives! We will pray that God’s will be done for Fr. Erikson and all who serve in leadership in the archdiocese.

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