Former Archbishop Harry Flynn dies at age 86

Archbishop Harry Flynn
Then-Archbishop Harry J. Flynn speaks to the gathering of bishops at the start of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in June 2002 in Dallas, Texas.
Rick Wilking | AFP | Getty Images

Updated: 1:42 p.m. Wednesday

Former Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis Harry Flynn has died.

The archdiocese announced Flynn's death on its website Monday morning. The statement said the archbishop emeritus died Sunday night. He was 86.

Flynn was the seventh archbishop in the Twin Cities and led the Catholic faithful from 1995 until his retirement in 2008.

He's being remembered as a personable and able hand when guiding the local church, as well as a national Catholic figure, albeit flawed in terms of addressing sexual misconduct. Flynn was also known for calling attention to poverty and the minimum wage, as well as speaking out about climate change.

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Flynn was a native of Schenectady, N.Y., and from childhood had a sense of personal loss and redemption. He was orphaned at age 12 and raised by three maiden aunts and found comfort in the Catholic faith. He went on to Mount St. Mary's Seminary and was ordained in the diocese of Albany, N.Y., in 1960, and later served on the Mount St. Mary's faculty.

He was named bishop in Lafayette, La., in 1986, following allegations that a priest there had abused hundreds of children in the parish, and gained a reputation for addressing sexual abuse by clergy — one that critics, including many in the church, considered undeserved.

His reputation brought him to the Twin Cities, where he succeeded Archbishop John Roach in 1995. Roach was only the second Minnesota native to serve as archbishop, and Flynn had to win over the archdiocese as an outsider.

Priest John Malone, who considered Flynn a friend, said the new archbishop was committed to becoming part of the community.

“He really was treating the archdiocese as a big parish,” Malone said. “And he met people one on one. He tried to know as many people as he could. He went to parishes. I don't think ever turned down an invitation that was possible to fulfill and he was present. He was available, present and friendly.”

Flynn also gained a larger profile and led the church's initial national response to the growing sexual abuse crisis. He was among the church leaders who helped write the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, a key church policy in the early 2000s.

In 2003 — after the crisis in the American church reached its peak — Flynn gave the keynote address at a national conference on clergy sex abuse: “One of the things that gives me hope in the current crisis is the experience I had in Lafayette of how people of good faith dealt with these terrible happenings.”

But as MPR News reported in 2013 and 2014, Flynn rarely met with victims in Lafayette and kept offenders in ministry. In Minnesota, Flynn also failed to follow the charter’s zero tolerance policy, and even authorized secret payments to abusive priests. Sexual abuse continued in the priesthood in the Twin Cities, and scandal and bankruptcy eventually followed with his successor, Archbishop John Neinstedt. In a 2014 deposition, Flynn said at least 134 times that he could not remember how he handled clergy sexual abuse cases during his tenure.

Malone said he felt Flynn was trying to do the right thing.

“When he was notified of things, I think he took action, but at the same time, I think he was really interested in helping them. Not excusing them,” Malone said. “And I think that created some difficulties for him. He was open to serving everybody and all their needs were different, and I think that example was a great thing he left for the archdiocese.”

Flynn was also known locally for his stands on social matters. He addressed climate change publicly about a dozen years ago. He was an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq, spoke publicly and regularly on the evil of racism, and addressed state officials on poverty. He was also critical of Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's no new taxes policy for its impact on the poor.

Flynn was also known for advocating on behalf of people in poverty. In 2008, Flynn spoke in favor of raising Minnesota’s minimum wage. Peter Rogness, a retired bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said Flynn was a strong ally in fighting cuts to Minnesota’s social service budget.

“When I arrived in 2002, it became very quickly apparent that Harry Flynn was a Catholic bishop whose every fiber of his being was ecumenical. He was very open to real strong collegiality,” Rogness said.

Malone said that Flynn had continued to minister and be active in the Twin Cities, speaking to parishes, offering a Good Friday sermon and providing counsel to those who sought it. He'd been living at the rectory at St. Vincent de Paul church. Malone said that Flynn's health had been declining in the last year and he went into hospice last week before he died late Sunday night.

Funeral services will begin Sunday evening at 6:30 p.m. with a public visitation and vigil at the St. Mary Chapel of the St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul. Another public visitation is scheduled for Monday morning from 8 to 10 a.m. at the Cathedral of St. Paul followed by a Mass of Christian Burial at 11 a.m. The burial will take place at Resurrection Cemetery in Mendota Heights.