The Vatican appointed Bishop William E. Lori, 60, of Bridgeport, Conn., the next archbishop of Baltimore, a move that observers say could thrust the city, where American Catholicism was born, into the center of two hot-button issues.
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Lori chairs the U.S. Conference of Bishops' Ad Hoc Committee For Religious Liberty, created to lead the fight the Obama administration's mandate that health insurance plans offered to employees of Catholic schools, hospitals and charities include birth control and to defend traditional marriage.
Introduced at a news conference at the Basilica of the Assumption on Tuesday, Lori signaled he would continue his advocacy in Washington and now Annapolis from the seat of what he called "this great, historic archdiocese." He said he plans to jump into the fray over the Maryland law granting marriage rights to same-sex couples, which was signed into law by Gov. Martin O'Malley but is expected to go to voter referendum in November.
"The church has clearly and consistently taught the greatness of marriage between one man and one woman," Lori said at the news conference. "Certainly, I will continue that teaching as a bishop and will be working on this issue as the referendum unfolds."
O'Malley, who is Catholic, said in response through a spokeswoman that he too is "a defender of the one-man, one-woman concept — each man and each woman treated equally under the law."
"I congratulate him on his appointment, and welcome him back to the area," the governor said.
Lori, a native of Louisville, Ky., earned a master's degree from Mount Saint Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg in 1977 and a doctorate from Catholic University in Washington in 1982. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1977 in Washington, given his first assignment at St. Joseph Parish in Landover and served several high-ranking posts under his mentor, Cardinal James Hickey, the late Washington archbishop. Lori took over the Bridgeport diocese in March 2001.
Most recently, Lori has been in the news for lobbying against the White House's contraception mandate. After a meeting last week with administration officials, he was quoted as saying it was "distressing" that the mandate appears "here to stay." He also wrote a rebuke, sarcastic at times, to an editorial in America magazine, a Jesuit publication. The editorial had taken the bishops conference to task for inflating a disagreement over policy into an infringement of religious freedom.
Already, an influential blogger on Catholicism is predicting that Lori's continued political activism, particularly in framing the contraception mandate as a religious-freedom issue, could become the signature endeavor of his time in Baltimore.
"Lori has been and will continue to be a strong character with a strong voice. He really is the quarterback pushing a strident line on the freedom of religion," said Rocco Palmo, whose "Whispers in the Loggia" blog broke the news of Lori's impending appointment. "He will be heavily involved in the public debate, and that will be the golden thread of his tenure in Baltimore."
Reese said Lori's elevation to archbishop of Baltimore will heighten his visibility and that of his committee on religious freedom. He suspects that the new assignment also puts Lori in line to eventually become president of the U.S. bishops conference.
"It raises his profile as chair of [the religious freedom] committee. More people will take him seriously because he's an archbishop," Reese said. "Rank matters. Being in an important city matters. I think we're going to hear from a lot more from him in the future."
Lori was introduced at the Basilica by his predecessor, Cardinal Edwin F. O'Brien, who said the new archbishop would continue his efforts on "the preservation of marriage, religious liberty and the protection of children."
O'Brien vacated the archbishop post in August 2011 to become the Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem, but will continue as apostolic administrator until Lori's installation on May 16.
In Bridgeport, Lori had to confront a problem that faces many dioceses, the sexual abuse of children by priests and other church employees. He apologized to victims in October 2003, and announced a $21 million settlement with 40 people who said they had been molested by priests, according to reports in The Hartford Courant.
The issue led Lori into a fight in which he again argued against government intrusion into religious affairs. The bishop battled to keep pretrial documents related to sex-abuse cases — which dated from before his tenure in Bridgeport — from being made public. Lori tried to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court a Connecticut state court order that would open the records, but the high court declined a motion to seal them.
Advocates for sexual abuse victims point to such efforts when they criticize Lori's lack of transparency in handling the issue.
But Lori in the past has pointed to how he has helped the church become more proactive and vigilant about sexual abuse through his work on what has become known as the Dallas Charter. Lori was one of the bishops who in 2002 wrote what they call a "zero-tolerance" policy on dealing with priests who have sexually abused children, and got it approved by the Vatican.
But Beth McCabe, co-leader of the Connecticut chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said Lori has been "unsympathetic to survivors" and has refused to deal with past events.
"He may have written the definitive charter on protecting children, but I question if he is following it," she said. "We find no empathy or compassion, only roadblocks."
Lori also has served as supreme chaplain of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, since 2005, and is "an excellent pastor and administrator," said Andrew Walther, the group's spokesman.
"He brings a calm, thoughtful solution to every situation," Walther said. "He is totally committed to the teachings of the church and is always a civil, resolute defender of the Catholic faith."
Lori said Tuesday he learned of the appointment on March 13 and has been getting a crash course on the archdiocese from O'Brien during the past week. He celebrated the noon Mass at the Basilica, and said he planned to visit parishes, schools and charities in the coming weeks.
He met with seminarians and parishioners who attended the press conference before the Mass, including Kelly Llobet and her five home-schooled children. Ranging in age from 2 to 11, they handed Lori a card welcoming him to town.
"He is a terrific, traditional Catholic," Llobet said. "This is history being made here today, and we are happy that he has come here to lead us."
During his remarks, Lori indeed proffered a conservative approach, decrying what he called "the erosion of religious liberty, by legislation, court decisions and the increasing secularity of culture."
Baltimore Auxiliary Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski said he has worked closely with Lori in the last few years during the semi-annual bishops' conferences.
"He is a quick learner, a good listener and he has a great talent for processing information and acting on it."
Palmo, the blogger, said Lori will have to hit the ground running once he becomes the 16th head of the Baltimore archdiocese, which includes surrounding counties and has about 510,000 Catholics.
"Lori's steel grit will serve him well on the tough moral issues that he will face immediately," Palmo said. "Baltimore is one of the best-run dioceses in the country, but there are many looming crises. He won't have much of a honeymoon. He will take to the big city easily and I predict his tenure will be long."