A new bishop has been appointed by Pope Francis to lead the Diocese of Rockville Centre, succeeding retiring Bishop William Murphy.
Bishop John Barres will assume his role as fifth bishop of Rockville Centre on Jan. 31, the diocese announced in a press release last Friday. He’ll oversee a population of more than 1.45 million Catholics across Long Island.
Bishop Barres, 56, has served the Diocese of Allentown in Pennsylvania since 2009 and was the first priest ordained a bishop within that diocese.
“It is my deep conviction that he will be a Bishop for all of us without exception,” Bishop Murphy said in a statement. “He has shared with me his love of youth and his care for the elderly. He has a keen sense of parish life and has a special expertise in education.”
The Diocese of Rockville Centre noted Bishop Barres’ work toward initiating pastoral planning processes for parishes, calling on each to establish a Parish Pastoral Council, and his support for strengthening Catholic schools in the region. Bishop Barres, who is active on Twitter on a daily basis, is also recognized for being at home in the digital world.
Bishop Barres will fill the shoes of Bishop Murphy, 76, who has led the local diocese since 2001. His retirement comes as no surprise, as canon law requires bishops to resign at age 75. He’ll serve as apostolic administrator until his retirement next month.
Word of the appointment is welcome news to Catholic leaders across the North Fork.
“We look forward to our new bishop and we are praying for him,” said Father Richard Hoerning of St. Agnes Church in Greenport.
Father Larry Duncklee of St. John the Evangelist in Riverhead pointed to the new bishop’s education as a sign of good things to come. Bishop Barres speaks Spanish, French and Italian, which will help him connect with some of Long Island’s largest communities, Father Duncklee said.
“What I really like is that he has a doctorate in spirituality,” he added. “That’s really fantastic because I think in our culture and society many, many people are looking for spirituality, but they don’t want to be connected to a particular religion or church. The fact that he has that background might be a good way to relate to people who are on the fringes and more welcoming in some ways.”
Father Duncklee said Bishop Barres will have to make the rounds and introduce himself to the various parishes in the diocese. He recalled a difficult transition when Bishop Murphy took over shortly before heightened allegations of sexual abuse at Catholic churches across the world. Bishop Murphy — who has served as a priest for more than 50 years, mainly in the Archdiocese of Boston — was installed as the fourth Bishop of Rockville Centre on Sept. 5, 2001, after the death of Bishop James T. McHugh. Four months later, a Boston Globe report outlining allegations of abuse by a priest in that city named Bishop Murphy as one of five Boston bishops who rose through the ranks of the Catholic church despite having served as a supervisor of that same priest. He then had to oversee the Diocese of Rockville Centre as local reports of abuse by priests spread in the aftermath of the Globe report.
“When Bishop Murphy got here it was a difficult time in the church all around,” Father Duncklee said. “He put in measures to help with that. He’s still got tons and tons of energy. He’s doing a lot of things. I’m sure he’s not just gonna sit down and do nothing.”
The Allentown Diocese Bishop Barres is leaving has also seen its share of scandal, including ongoing allegations of abuse, which led several organizations advocating on the behalf of victims of priest abuse to question his appointment this week. In September, the Express Times in Lehigh Valley, Pa., reported that Bishop Barres’ diocese was one of six included in a grand jury investigation into their handling of alleged abuse of minors by clergy.
Bishop Barres addressed the allegations in a letter to parishioners in September. He said the diocese has a history of cooperating with authorities in connection with allegations of abuse.
In 2002, before he became bishop, the diocese shared records of priests against whom allegations of abuse of minors had been made, his letter said.
“Since then, we have notified the relevant District Attorneys of claims of abuse,” he wrote. “The State Attorney General’s Office has subpoenaed our records on all possible abuses, and we are in the process of turning over material.
“The Diocese of Allentown is committed to the protection and safety of the children and young people entrusted to its care … [and has] zero tolerance for offenders,” the letter continued.
The Pennsylvania office of the attorney general said it could neither confirm nor deny the alleged investigation.
Pennsylvania state representative Mark Rozzi, who previously shared that he was abused by an Allentown Diocese priest in 1984 at age 13, confirmed that he testified before a grand jury in August. Mr. Rozzi stressed that Bishop Barres is separated from any wrongdoing and that the information gathered about the diocese “is going to be pretty damning.”
“Overall I think John’s a great guy and I think he’s going to be a steal for your parish up there,” Mr. Rozzi said in a telephone interview Friday. “He really is somebody that you know you can love and respect.
Courtesy photo: Bishop John Barres.