Profile: Archbishop Bernard Hebda, temporary caretaker of the Twin Cities archdiocese

Bishop Bernard Hebda
Bernard Hebda, currently of Gaylord, Michigan, in Newark, N.J., Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013, after it was announced that the pope has named Hebda coadjutor bishop.
Associated Press | File 2013

The man who will serve as a temporary caretaker for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is an Ivy League-educated attorney with working-class Rust Belt roots — and a high-profile archdiocese job in his sights.

He's known in his New Jersey diocese for eschewing a fancy residence where he could live by himself and instead choosing to live in a dormitory suite alongside other priests.

Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Bernard Hebda, who has served since 2013 as coadjutor bishop in the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., as apostolic administrator of the Twin Cities archdiocese.

The Vatican announced Monday that the pope accepted the resignations of Archbishop John Nienstedt and Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piche, only 10 days after prosecutors filed criminal charges against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis for its "role in failing to protect children and contribution to the unspeakable harm" done to three sexual abuse victims of a former priest.

In a letter to Twin Cities clergy, Hebda said his role in Minnesota would be part-time and temporary. "[I]t is my intention to be as available as possible, while still fulfilling my responsibilities as the coadjutor archbishop of Newark," he wrote.

According to church law, an archdiocese cannot operate without a leader. As apostolic administrator, Hebda will take on all the responsibilities of leading an archdiocese. He will fill the role until the pope appoints a new, permanent archbishop for the Twin Cities. It's unclear how long that might take — or even when Hebda might arrive in St. Paul.

Explore the full investigation Clergy abuse, cover-up and crisis in the Twin Cities Catholic church

Some who know Hebda say he's perfect for the role.

"He's a people person," said the Rev. Louis Vallone, a canon law expert and parish priest in Hebda's hometown Diocese of Pittsburgh, "that is wrapped around a brilliant intellect, an extremely sharp and incisive mind."

Vallone, who has known Hebda from his time as a parish priest and diocesan leader in Pennsylvania and his canon law days in the Vatican, credits Hebda's working-class Pittsburgh upbringing for his strong work ethic.

"He will pour his heart out for the people of the Twin Cities and try to help the healing, try to help the transition, try to help set things up for whomever is going to be your permanent shepherd there," he said, "and then he will just move on as he always has, to whatever the church asks him to do next."

Vallone said Twin Cities parishioners should expect to find in Hebda the kind of administrator who will hold the archdiocese together in a time of transition, not a policymaker intent on making changes.

"Don't look for a charging knight on a white horse," Vallone said. "Look for a paramedic."

Hebda is popular in New Jersey's Catholic community, said the Rev. John P. Bambrick, a priest at St. Aloysius Church in the Diocese of Trenton.

"He's engaging to people, he listens, he's very funny — you only hear good things about him from priests and religious and laypeople," Bambrick said. "I would say that certainly he's brought a much kinder face to the archdiocese, only because his leadership style is very down-to-Earth."

Bambrick said Hebda's temporary move to the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has some in New Jersey worried.

"If he remains there, you will be very lucky," Bambrick said. "I've gotten emails this morning from priests and religious and laypeople who have said, "Oh my gosh, he's not going to stay there, right?'"

In 2013, Pope Francis appointed Hebda to the New Jersey post, where he will serve alongside current Archbishop John Myers until Myers' July 2016 retirement, when Hebda will take over.

"Everyone has been very clear that this is an additional assignment that the Holy Father has asked Archbishop Hebda to take on for now," said Jim Goodness, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Newark.

The clergy sexual abuse scandal is familiar territory for Hebda. Advocates for victims of clergy sexual abuse say the situation in Newark is as dire as it is in the Twin Cities.

Advocates were initially optimistic when Hebda was appointed to lead alongside Meyers, said Robert Hoatson, a former priest and founder of Road to Recovery, a support network for victims of sexual abuse.

"We were thrilled that Francis had assigned a coadjutor, but we were shocked that he hadn't removed Myers," Hoatson said. "Myers is as bad or worse than Nienstedt."

Hoatson said advocates have been disappointed that little in the Archdiocese of Newark appears to have improved during Hebda's tenure.

"This is the rearrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic that they're sending a coadjutor archbishop from Newark to St. Paul and Minneapolis," he said. "It's just another sign that the ship is sinking and it's the leadership of the ship that needs to be changed significantly before anything can really happen in the church."

When he was appointed in 2013, Hebda readily admitted he hadn't handled many clergy abuse cases in his previous role as bishop of Gaylord, Mich.

Since then, many of the responsibilities around addressing clergy sex abuse remain in the hands of his boss, Newark's Archbishop Myers.

But Vallone said Hebda's primary role in the Twin Cities will be to settle things down. Hebda, he said, isn't a "my way or the highway" type of leader. Instead, said Vallone, Hebda has a style that leans more toward listening to people — then bringing them together.

Hebda is a Harvard graduate with a civil law degree from Columbia University. He worked for a high-profile Pittsburgh law firm before being ordained a priest in 1989.

He served briefly as a parish priest, then became a canon lawyer — an expert in church law — before returning to the Diocese of Pittsburgh to work in various roles in the 1990s. He worked in Rome as a canon lawyer and then as bishop of Gaylord, Mich., before his appointment to Newark.

He was unavailable to comment Monday.

"There will be many unanswered questions as we take this significant transitional step to new leadership," Twin Cities Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens said in a brief statement late Monday morning. "I pledge to you personally, though, that Archbishop Hebda and I will work closely to bring our archdiocese into a new day."

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