Walter Sullivan
Walter Sullivan 1928-2012

Walter Sullivan and I grew up in the same neighborhood, making us homeboys. But he moved away to go to the seminary 24 years before my birth. He became the bishop of Richmond shortly after I turned four.

My mom lived for a couple months last year in a wing of her assisted-living facility named for Walter Sullivan.

Sullivan ordained many of my priest friends. He commissioned the writing of our compendious diocesan history book; the author dedicated his work to Sullivan.

Jennifer Aniston’s former mother-in-law wrote a biography of Sullivan called The Good Bishop.

Students at Virginia Commonwealth University learn about Catholicism from the Walter Sullivan professor of religion. They attend the Walter Sullivan lecture series.

The first-ever Holocaust Memorial in the state of Virginia sits on the property of our cathedral in Richmond; money from the Walter Sullivan Fund provides for its maintenance.

I remember Walter Sullivan both as a “flaming liberal” who presided over the wreck-ovation of numerous historic parish churches and as a kindly gentleman with the voice of Kermit the Frog. He had a profound aversion for violence. And for any trappings of ecclesiastical authority.

Commonwealth Catholicism FogartyHe saw to it that every county in our vast diocese had a Catholic parish–even though he didn’t have anywhere near enough priests, and he made practically no effort to inspire or retain vocations to the sacred priesthood.

One thing for sure: Walter Sullivan, during a three-decade tenure as bishop, made an enormous impact on our Catholic life here.

We used to have a Catholic high school named for Walter Sullivan, in Virginia Beach. That is, until Bishop Knestout removed Walter Sullivan’s name from that institution, this past Thursday.


Well, we would have the devil of a time figuring that out, if we had only the unintelligible diocesan communiques to inform us.

Bishop instituted a policy against naming buildings after anyone other than Lord Jesus, a canonized saint, or a place. Doesn’t apply to rooms or wings of buildings. Doesn’t appear to apply retroactively, except in the case of Bishop Sullivan High School, which will now be known as Catholic High School (it’s name from 1993-2003).

What gives?

Bishop announced the name change in a letter about sexual abuse. Has someone accused the late Bishop Sullivan of abuse? Doesn’t appear so.

But Bishop Knestout writes: “overcoming the tragedy of abuse is not just about holding accountable those who have committed abuses, it is also about seriously examining the role and complex legacies of individuals who should have done more to address the crisis in real time…It is my hope and prayer that the policy change is another way to continue to assist survivors of abuse in their healing, especially those who have, in any way, experienced the failure of Church leadership to adequately address their needs and concerns.”

Exactly who and what does bishop mean here? A reporter asked that question. The answer, provided by our diocesan press agent, Ms. Deborah Cox:

“The bishop is aware of the concerns survivors and advocates who have detailed the detrimental effect of continued recognition of those who may have been in a position to intervene and better protect them. This policy is not designed to punish or tarnish legacies; this action is intended to remove what survivors might feel are barriers to healing.”

The same reporter had asked Ms. Cox in late May about having Sullivan’s name on the high school. Cox had said then that “the diocese is not investigating whether Sullivan mishandled allegations, nor is there a plan to rename any diocese buildings.”

Mumbo jumbo and zig-zagging naturally beg more questions. The reporter asked. From last week’s article:

sacredheartcathedralrichmond“Cox did not respond to The Virginian-Pilot‘s questions about whether the diocese investigated claims about Sullivan or whether Lee influenced the decision.”


Mr. Tom Lee. Sexually abused by Father John Leonard. At St. John Vianney diocesan high-school, in 1969, 1970, and 1972.

Lee, Mr. Bruce Jeter, Mr. James Kronzer, Mr. Bill Bryant, and Mr. Thor Gormley all reported to the diocese that Fathers John Leonard, Julian Goodman, and Randy Rule had abused them sexually during their high-school years at St. John Vianney–a small high-school the diocese had established to help young men discern vocations to the priesthood. (The school closed over forty years ago.)

All the accusations reached Sullivan during his tenure as bishop.

Father Goodman admitted his crimes. Bishop Sullivan did not terminate Father Goodman’s ministry.

In fact, Bishop Sullivan declared in 2002 (the last time American bishops pretended to care about sex-abuse victims) that the diocese of Richmond had no abusers in active ministry. (While all three St.-John-Vianney abusers were still in ministry.)

In 2002, Father Leonard denied wrongdoing. Claimed it was all a big misunderstanding. Sullivan ordered an investigation. (Sullivan admitted that he never personally spoke with Leonard.) One of the investigators sat on the diocesan review board.

Sullivan exonerated Leonard after the investigation, without consulting the review board. The investigator who sat on the board, along with other members, resigned.

Less than two years later, Leonard was found guilty of misdemeanor sex abuse in Henrico County court. Sullivan claimed then that he had acted under pressure in earlier exonerating Leonard.

The most charitable interpretation of Sullivan’s actions:

[PG-13] Sullivan studiously refused to recognize that doing things like: giving minors drugs and alcohol, asking minors to remove their clothes, initiating sexual conversations with minors, fondling minors’ genitalia–that while these things may not rise to the criminal threshold of forcible sodomy, they all count either as acts of sexual abuse, or as acts intended to groom someone for sexual abuse. Sexual predators do things like this.

Sullivan did not want to see that. He wanted to draw a line at actual penetration, and call everything short of that line “horseplay” or “boundary violation.”

That’s the most charitable interpretation possible for Sullivan’s dithering. Less charitable interpretations certainly stand to reason also.

I think that, for these failures, we rightly decline to honor the memory of Walter Sullivan. For all his vaunted sensitivities, he betrayed the trust of these sexual-abuse victims. (And other victims, too–I intend to try to write more about this when I can.) I think we can agree with Mr. Tom Lee that Sullivan’s name does not belong on our Catholic High School in Virginia Beach.

But: Is it too much to ask that our diocese be clear about all this? At least as clear as I am trying to be right now? After all, the diocesan files contain more information–more than what I have been able to unearth, with just a part-time research assistant and Google.

Is it too much to ask that the diocese recognize two facts? 1. Acknowledging the truth about Bishop Sullivan’s profound failure causes pain to the many people who remember him very fondly. But 2. We have to cause that pain, because truth and justice require it.

Sullivan managed to hurt, endanger, and disedify pretty much everyone involved in the sordid history of the abuse at St. John Vianney. How? By failing to think and communicate clearly about it. That was his fundamental crime. Lack of honest clarity.

Clarity about the high-school name change? From Bishop Barry Knestout and his entourage? Hardly.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.


Sacred Aedificia + More Invitations

Most Holy Lateran Church, of all the churches in the city and the world, the mother and head

1,687 years ago today: The Pope dedicated his cathedral church building in Roma.

Click HERE for a thorough digest of this event (from the archives), including wolverines.

…Re: the sacred Catholic structures of Franklin and Henry counties, Virginny:

1. His Excellency Bishop Sullivan originally dedicated Francis of Assisi parish church in 1987. The 25th anniversary of this august occasion will fall on Ash Wednesday, which makes for a bit of a buzzkill. In May of 2013, we will festively celebrate the 15th anniversary of the dedication of the expanded church building. Mark your calendars now.

2. The same Bishop Sullivan consecrated the new church of St. Joseph in Martinsville on November 25, 2001! We will celebrate the tenth anniversary of this blessed day on Thanksgiving morning, with a Mass at 9:00 a.m. Then we will dine together to celebrate the anniversary (and the holidays) on Friday, December 9!

All readers are most cordially invited.