Louisville's Archbishop Kelly Turns 75

By Bruce Schreiner
The Associated Press, carried in WHAS
July 14, 2006

Louisville, Ky. (AP) -- Roman Catholic Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly turns 75 on today, a milestone that starts a process toward retirement for the spiritual leader of an archdiocese shaken by a clergy sex abuse scandal during his long tenure.

As required by church law, Kelly will submit his letter of resignation to the Vatican upon turning 75, but the archbishop has said it could take up to 18 months for a successor to be named as head of the Louisville archdiocese.

Until then, Kelly will remain Louisville archbishop. The archdiocese spans 24 counties with more than 200,000 Catholics.

Kelly, who was out of town Thursday and unavailable for comment, has been archbishop since 1982. He presided over the archdiocese amid the tumult of the priest abuse scandal. The archdiocese agreed in 2003 to pay $25.7 million to settle with more than 240 victims of sexual abuse by priests or other church workers.

Many of the abuse cases occurred before Kelly's arrival in Louisville.

The settlement, one of the largest single payouts in a series of sex-abuse settlements across the country, put a financial strain on the archdiocese that led to staff reductions and higher parish assessments.

Worshippers leaving Thursday's midday Mass at the Cathedral of the Assumption said they were satisfied with Kelly's handling of the scandal.

"At the time I thought he probably should have resigned to take responsibility for it," said parishioner Kirk Wagner. "But maybe in the long run it was best that he didn't, so he would be here to guide the church."

The Rev. George Kilcourse, professor of theology at Bellarmine University, an independent Catholic school, said Kelly handled the crisis "with a shepherd's heart."

"He suffered greatly," Kilcourse said by telephone. "You could see it in his face and hear it in his voice at times."

After the midday Mass, parishioner Richard Miller said Kelly had been "an excellent leader, not without faults, like all of us, but a good and holy man."

A decade ago, the archbishop publicly acknowledged his own bout with addiction to alcohol and painkillers and sought treatment.

The Rev. William L. Fichteman, pastor at the cathedral, said Thursday that the episode made Kelly an even better spiritual leader. "It makes him more credible when he talks about hurt and pain and sin, even," he said.

The cathedral itself will be part of Kelly's legacy, having been renovated under his watch.

"It's a very beautiful worship space. We're grateful to have that," said Miller, who has attended Mass at the cathedral for years.

Others praised Kelly for his keen intellect, human touch and a self-deprecating wit, which was displayed when the archbishop openly discussed his pending retirement in a recent column he wrote for a Catholic publication.

Kelly wrote that the search for a successor could last 18 months.

"I hope you don't mind waiting," he said. "Until the arrival of the next archbishop, I hope you can put up with me, long in the tooth but a shepherd who loves his priests and people and who will continue to do his best to serve them."

During his tenure, Kelly confirmed thousands of Catholics and ordained dozens of priests. He also weighed in on public policy as an outspoken opponent of abortion and the death penalty and an advocate for the poor.

He was also known for reaching out to leaders of other denominations.

For years, Episcopal Bishop Edwin Gulick Jr. has had breakfast once a week with Kelly and other church leaders. He called Kelly a "renaissance man" who loves music and opera and a "very astute theologian."

"He has a tremendous mind, an expansive and compassionate heart and virtually no ego," Gulick said Thursday.

Gulick said if he ever faced a personal problem requiring ministerial counseling, "it would probably be Tom Kelly that would care for my soul."

Years ago, Kelly was part of a delegation from Louisville that successfully courted the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to move its headquarters to Louisville.

Kilcourse said that Kelly's successor will have big shoes to fill but will also benefit from the goodwill fostered by Kelly.

"He'll meet people who know how to love their bishop and work shoulder to shoulder with him," Kilcourse said.


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