Bishop Emeritus Matthew Clark dies at 85

Bishop Emeritus Matthew Harvey Clark, the affable, liberal-minded upstate New Yorker who led Rochester’s Roman Catholic diocese for 33 years, died Sunday morning.

Clark, who retired as bishop in September 2012, was 85 years old.

His death was announced in a letter released by his successor, Bishop Salvatore Matano. It reported that Clark died in his room at the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester Motherhouse infirmary in Pittsford, where he had been living since June 2020. Clark had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2019, and Matano's letter noted the death followed a period of declining health.

"United as a diocesan family, we now accompany Bishop Clark with our prayers, especially at Holy Mass, asking the angels and the saints to receive his soul and present him to the Eternal High Priest, Our Savior Jesus Christ,"Matano wtote. "Kindly also pray for Bishop Clark’s family and friends who mourn his death and pray for him; may they be consoled by our faith in eternal life – a kingdom of light and peace where we will behold the face of God."

Funeral arrangements have not yet been announced.

Bishop Clark cut a vigorous, outgoing figure. Just 41 years old when he was installed before 10,000 rapt onlookers in the Community War Memorial arena, he was the second-youngest bishop in the United States.

He took an active role in community issues and consulted with government and business leaders. For a time, he was so well-known that he couldn’t walk down the street without being greeted every few paces by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

His tenure reflected the tension over doctrine that has embroiled the American Catholic Church in for many years. In the context of Catholicism, he was a progressive, and he clashed with the conservative hierarchy in the Vatican over things such as his advocacy for a greater role for women in the church, and for greater acceptance of gay and lesbian people.

Yet at times, he angered liberal Catholics by carrying out harsh directives from above. Most notably and painfully, he removed the Rev. James Callan as pastor of Corpus Christi Church in 1998 and ordered him to cease priestly activities after Callan broke with doctrine by blessing same-sex marriages and allowing women to play prominent roles in services.

Clark said he had no choice but to take the steps he did. Callan went on to found an independent Catholic church, Spiritus Christi, at which he remains the associate pastor.

Whatever else is his legacy, however, Bishop Clark’s memory will be tarnished by the ugly scandal of child sexual abuse that erupted during his time as bishop.

Like many other church leaders, Bishop Clark has been accused of failing to prevent the priests and other ministers in his charge from sexually exploiting minors, and of being unwilling to expose their actions and allow them to be brought to justice.

On at least one occasion, victims’ families demanded he resign.

Bishop Clark labored for years with the scandal, which he called in a 2012 interview “the worst thing that has ever happened in my lifetime to the church.

"The core damage done to the young people victimized by priests, of whom they had every right to expect the highest level of trust and care, that is a terrible black mark and stain on our recent history," Clark said.

That interview did not contain any explanation from Bishop Clark of the role that he had played.

Clark evolved his views on role of women

Bishop Matthew Clark gives communion to his niece Helen Early.
Bishop Matthew Clark gives communion to his niece Helen Early.

Clark was born on July 15, 1937. A native of Waterford, a small river town in Saratoga County, Clark was raised in a traditional family that he once described as observant but not zealous in its faith.

He attended a Catholic high school in nearby Troy, Rensselaer County, where he was a star athlete, and earned a Navy ROTC scholarship to attend College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts.

He said later that he had no intention of becoming a priest until, during a 1956 ROTC voyage on a Navy destroyer, he found himself counseling other young sailors in a way he found surprising and fulfilling.

“There was something about that cruise that said to me, ‘You have some gifts, some abilities or opportunities, to share,’” Clark told a reporter years later.

He began his religious preparation for the priesthood the following year at St. Bernard’s Seminary on Lake Avenue in Rochester.

From there he began what proved to be a cross-Atlantic career. He studied at the Pontifical North American College and the Pontifical Gregorian University, both at the Vatican in Rome, and was ordained a priest there in December 1962.

Bishop Clark returned to the United States the following year, serving at a parish in the Albany diocese and teaching at a Catholic school there.

He went back to Rome and earned an advanced degree in canon law in 1966, then returned to Albany to become vice chancellor of the diocese and an assistant pastor at a church there.

The bishop-to-be journeyed to the Eternal City yet again, to serve as spiritual director of the pontifical college. He was there, enjoying Roman culture and ministering to students who called him “Matty,” when he got the call to become bishop of the 12-county Rochester diocese.

He was greeted like an ecclesiastical rock star. An enthusiastic crowd met him at the airport, and a much larger throng came by car, bus and airplane to his installation. The evening ceremony was solemn but when it ended, the crowd cheered and Bishop Clark jubilantly thrust his fist “excited as he might have been as a youth playing basketball or football in Troy,” as a reporter put it.

Afterward, the raucous crowd broke through barriers for the chance to shake the new bishop’s hand.

Outside the War Memorial, a small group of women wearing yellow sashes who were leafleting outside the War Memorial to call for a greater role for women in the church.

Unnoticed that evening by the mass of faithful, the women, some of whom were nuns, accosted the new bishop as he left.

Bishop Clark, who had articulated traditional views about women’s role in the church and had just ordered a halt to women delivering homilies at services, paused and asked the women to explain their dissatisfaction.

This meeting proved the beginning of a spiritual and intellectual journey. Bishop Clark met with many church members to discuss the topic and convened a group of women to dialog with him.

His views changed.

“He did a lot of reading, soul searching and studying and came to understand that women are not accepted as full participants in the ministerial life of the church and that was not acceptable,” Sister Joan Sobala, a participant in these discussions, told a reporter in 1993.

Bishop Clark said told the reporter the conversations had been difficult but were “among the best things I’ve ever done.” In 1982, the bishop published a forward-thinking pastoral letter, The Fire in the Thornbush, that called for greater inclusion of women in the ministry.

Over time, Bishop Clark allowed women in his diocese to give the homily and serve as pastoral administrators, meaning they were in charge of parishes. He also spoke out in favor of ordaining women as deacons and said that married men should be allowed to serve as priests.

Poignantly, he called celibacy “a very difficult virtue” for men of the cloth and one that required great sacrifice. “I always have and always will miss the opportunity to be a spouse and the father of children. There is no question about that - which is not to say I have not been happy,” he said in 1993.

In that 1993 interview, he acknowledged that Pope John Paul II was strongly opposed to allowing women to be ordained, but politely argued it was “not healthy” for church leaders to avoid an open discussion of the issue.

He saw a time when attitudes would change.

“Some other Bishop of Rome down the line will have a different disposition. Someone in the near future will say we have to sit down and gather about the issue.” The current people, Francis, is considerably more liberal than John Paul II but has not yet embraced the ordination of women.

Response to the abuse crisis

From his earliest statements on child sexual abuse, Bishop Clark was sorrowful and publicly empathetic toward victims. But viewed now in hindsight, the bishop emeritus also was protective and solicitous of priests who were sexually attracted to children and reluctant to remove them from the ministry.

In this, he differed little from many American bishops or, for that matter, from many other organizational leaders in the 1970s and 80s. It was common to believe then that child sexual abuse should be kept under wraps and abusers could be dissuaded from repeating their offenses.

Bishop Clark also seems to have been reluctant to speak forcefully on the matter.

In the mid-1980s, when local and national incidents first focused a public spotlight on the sexual abuse of children by Catholic ministers in this country, Bishop Clark did not speak publicly.

In private, he later said he began to have doubts about the course of action he was following.

In a sworn deposition he gave in March 2020 in the Rochester diocese’s bankruptcy proceeding, the bishop emeritus said that the “barrage of publicity” in 1985 raised his awareness “of the severe gravity of the impact of the abuse on young people. … and of how deeply seated this tendency or reality was in the perpetrator.”

The following year, the diocese said it was considering opening a treatment center for abusive priests. The bishop himself did not comment publicly on the proposal.

The first time Bishop Clark broached the topic publicly appears to have been 1990, when he wrote a book chapter entitled “Pastoral reflections on child sexual abuse in the church.” The bishop wrote that priests or other church ministers who sexually abuse children should be viewed not as wayward Christians but as people suffering from an illness.

In an interview, he stressed that church leaders should care first for the victims of abuse and their families, but also should not forget the offending priests. “He should not be left alone to do this but should experience the support of his bishop and other friends in the community,” Clark said.

In that interview, the bishop refused to delve more into the subject of child abusers that had been found within the Rochester diocese, saying only “I’ve run into it during my years as a priest. It’s a very delicate thing, obviously.”

He said his broaching of the topic “isn’t a signal that we (the diocese) have been tormented with this problem, because we haven’t.”

In his March 2020 deposition, Bishop Clark testified that when he arrived in Rochester in 1979, he was told of only two priests in the diocese who had had sexual contact with children.

He said those priests, whose names he could not recall, had been “talked to, so to speak, and cautioned,” according to a transcript of his three-hour-long sworn statement. The two apparently were allowed to continue in the ministry.

The bishop emeritus was asked by the lawyer taking the deposition if he subsequently learned of more offender priests in the diocese. He replied, “Oh, yes.”

By 1990, when Clark declined to say anything to a local reporter about the scope of sexual abuse in his diocese, at least 50 priests, nuns, religious brothers, and deacons in the Rochester diocese had sexually abused children, if one believes accusations in lawsuits and the diocese’s own statements. The true number of accused likely is much higher.

In 1996, when scandals erupted elsewhere in the United States and John Paul II instructed U.S. bishops to act, the Rochester diocese publicly pledged to investigate allegations that priests had sexually abused minors and to place those priests they judged guilty on leave.

The diocese did not, however, promise to inform police of every allegation. They continued to stress counseling for guilty priests and did not promise to remove them from the ministry.

Three years later came the first occasion when parishioners publicly complained that the diocese had known a priest was a predator and failed to do anything about it. The priest, the Rev. Eugene Emo, had been arrested for sexually abusing a developmentally disabled man.

Bishop Clark wrote a column in which he simply reiterated that 1993 policy. Emo was removed from the priesthood. But when the Rev. William Lum was convicted the following year for sexually abusing a teenage boy, he was allowed to keep his collar until 2002.

A year of reckoning

That year, 2002, provided a reckoning and a turning point. The priest-abuse scandal in Boston prompted a nationwide conversation, and many victims emerged to make their accusations in private and in public.

Bishop Clark’s diocese was openly charged with protecting serial abusers. Information made public then, and in more recent lawsuits, suggest that families complained to the diocese about at least a dozen abusive priests or nuns over the years but were unsatisfied with the result.

On May 2 of that year, Clark announced his response to the uproar: Three diocesan priests were being removed from their churches because of allegations that had made been against them.

The diocese also noted, almost in passing that several priests had been told they could no longer function as clerics or appear in public in their collars.

One of them was the Rev. Robert O’Neill, who now stands as one of the diocese’s most profligate accused abusers. Accusations against him dated to the 1960s; he had been removed from posts and sent for treatment but remained a priest in good standing until May 1, the day before the bishop’s announcement, when he was allowed to retire.

Neither the bishop nor diocesan officials said anything that day about why O’Neill’s faculties had been removed. The sordid details were reported by the newspaper several days later.

Clark did acknowledge that day that he had failed to go through diocesan files for information about past abuse by priests when he became bishop. This could have been an oblique reference to O’Neill, about whom parishioners had first complained in the 1960s.

“I didn’t think of it. Perhaps I should have, but I didn’t,” Clark was quoted as saying.

In the weeks after his mild apologia, more accusations against priests were made public. Families whose child had been victimized by a priest who was living incognito in a Rochester rectory demanded the bishop’s resignation.

The U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops adopted a charter in 2002 that laid out new steps that church leaders and members were required to take to stem the tide of abuse.

In Rochester, accused priests were quickly removed from the ministry and the accusations were investigated. Some were told they could remain priests but perform no ministerial duties. Others were forced out of the priesthood altogether.

In 2012, the diocese was the first in New York to publish a list of credibly accused priests. The list on its website names 27 men at present.

Comprehensive education and monitoring programs were put in place in churches, schools, and other venues, and much more attention was paid to prevention.

While new accusations of misconduct by priests in past decades continue to emerge, diocesan officials frequently point out that it has been many years since a church minister has been credibly accused of a new act of child sexual abuse.

Bishop Clark expressed sorrow and regret for what had happened, but never offered an accounting of how he handled accusations during the 33 years he was in the office.

He was asked in his March 2020 deposition about 52 priests and other ministers who have been named in child sexual abuse cases. Bishop Clark acknowledged that he knew of some of the allegations but not others, and provided meaningful information about his interaction with only two of them.

It may be that much more background will emerge. Thousands of pages of confidential diocesan files were given to victims’ lawyers in the diocese’s bankruptcy case and to the state Attorney General’s office, which was investigating how the state’s eight Catholic dioceses dealt with abuse accusations.

For now, however, the full story of Bishop Clark’s handling of child sexual abuse allegations remains to be written.

Disapproval from some faithful

Under Bishop Clark’s leadership, the diocese supported anti-nuclear weapon protests in Seneca County, campaigned against the death penalty, and mediated between angry community leaders and Rochester police.

And he preached tolerance and acceptance.

In 1988, fairly early in the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Bishop Clark released a highly publicized pastoral letter calling for better education, destigmatization, support, and medical care. The letter grew praise but also questions from people who said it seemed hollow in light of the church’s rejection of homosexuals.

Nine years later, Bishop Clark held a mass for LGBTQ Catholics at Sacred Heart Cathedral. More than 1,000 people packed the church, and attendees hailed the bishop for his embrace of gap and lesbian worshipers. About 75 people picketed the cathedral holding signs accusing him of blasphemy.

The bishop triggered much wider disapproval from the faithful with his decisions in the latter half of his term to close diocesan schools and consolidate parishes, selling off the property as surplus.

He was accused of selling out parishioners by putting pecuniary interests first, but viewed against the backdrop of history, the closures seem inevitable. Church attendance and Catholic school enrollment tumbled, both in Rochester and in many other American dioceses.

Rochester counted about 360,000 practicing Catholics at the time when Bishop Clark arrived. The diocese says it has about 300,000 now.

Individual church members, especially those who have been in the diocese for some time, will remember Bishop Clark for his involvement in the issues of the day in the community and within the church.

But they also will remember the late bishop as a man of kindness, geniality, and grace, who stopped to bless a baby at baptism or a child at confirmation, who nodded to strangers on the street, and who remembered names like a veteran ward heeler.

He had a commoner’s touch. “He thinks of himself as Matthew and not fundamentally as Bishop Clark,” a friend told a reporter in 1993.

He proudly rooted for the New York Yankees. A star athlete in high school, he was a runner for many years thereafter, racking up long miles each week.

He liked to cook -- Italian, perhaps remembering his time in Rome -- and liked to relax at night listening to music or watching a game.

He eschewed the bishop’s formal garb much of the time, preferring a simple black and suit, occasionally without the priest’s collar.

In May of 1979, two days before he would be ordained in the Vatican by John Paul II, a visiting reporter happened to be present when the new bishop’s cassock arrived from the seamstress.

He pulled out the long black garment, piped in red, and remarked on how many buttons it had. He put it on, and modelled it, light-hearted, for the reporter.

“You are the first to see the new bishop in his new cassock,” Matthew Harvey Clark said with a grin. “Think it fits?”

Includes reporting by staff writer Sean Lahman

This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Bishop Emeritus Matthew Clark dies at 85