PROVIDENCE — Pope Francis has named a New York prelate as the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence’s new bishop on Wednesday, months before Bishop Thomas Tobin turns 75, the church’s mandatory retirement age.
The Most Rev. Richard G. Henning, auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., will be the coadjutor bishop of Providence, serving with Tobin, with the right of succession.
The Rockville Centre Diocese filed for bankruptcy in 2020 after hundreds of sexual abuse cases were filed against it under New York’s Child Victims Act, which allowed survivors time to file claims despite the statute of limitations. Since then, more than 600 cases have been filed against the Rockville Centre Diocese, and a recent investigation by Patch reporters found that hundreds of those cases have not been settled.
Rockville Centre is the fourth Roman Catholic diocese in New York, and the largest in the United States to file for bankruptcy, according to published reports.
“Despite repeated pledges from church officials to be open and transparent, church officials in Rockville Centre hid important information about clergy abuse from the public. Bishop Henning held a high ranking position in the Diocese of Rockville Centre and we can’t help but think that he could have done more,” said Mike McDonnell, spokesman for SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “We hope that the bishop will take one giant step when he assumes the helm in Providence, and that is to support victims in every way possible and update the list of credibly accused clergy, which in our view is woefully short.”
Tobin and Henning held a press conference Wednesday at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul to announce the changes.
Henning told the Globe after the press conference that Rockville Centre’s bankruptcy has been “a long and difficult process” and a “learning experience” he said hopes to not go through ever again.
“The decision to enter into Chapter 11 was driven by the desire to first have the resources to address survivors, but also to be able to continue the mission of the church,” said Henning, who said he has respect for Rockville Centre Diocese’s leadership for their handling of the bankruptcy.
“I think there has been a lot of integrity to survivors and to the mission of the church,” he added.
Tobin was appointed bishop by Pope John Paul II in 2005 and became nationally known for his firebrand stands against gay marriage and abortion rights.
Under his leadership, the diocese lobbied against gay marriage in Rhode Island, which became legally recognized in 2013, as well as changes to Rhode Island law to extend the statute of limitations for victims of childhood sexual abuse. Tobin was also critical of Pope Francis for his support for same-sex civil unions.
Henning, in contrast, told the Globe that his beliefs align “entirely” with the pope’s.
The pope is “a remarkable person. He is just amazing,” Henning said. “Do I in any way dissent from him? When it comes to Catholic teaching, no, I do not.”
“But the Holy Father doesn’t expect us to be automatons,” added Henning. “It will be my duty to pray and exercise leadership according to my conscience and the teachings of the church. I would never see that as putting me at odds with the Holy Father.”
Tobin has also criticized leaders and politicians who support abortion rights, including President Biden, Nelson Mandela, then-Democratic vice presidential candidate SenatorTim Kaine, and then-US Congressman Patrick Kennedy.
The bishop ignited outrage with a tweet in 2019 warning congregants not to attend LGBTQ Pride Month events.
Meanwhile, the attorney general’s office is continuing to review all files of childhood sexual abuse collected by the Diocese of Providence since 1950.
In the summer of 2019, the diocese began publishing on its website the names of clergy who’ve been credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors.
Attorney General Peter F. Neronha and Tobin also entered a memorandum of understanding that gave prosecutors and State Police access to 70 years of diocesan files and records — whether or not allegations were deemed credible by the diocese.
The volume of records regarding clergy sexual abuse includes hundreds of thousands of documents. The attorney general’s office will eventually prepare a comprehensive report of its findings regarding such abuse and how the diocese responded.
A spokesman for the attorney general’s office said Wednesday that the ongoing review has prompted additional alleged victims to contact prosecutors and the State Police. So far, the investigation has led to indictments of four priests on felony sexual abuse charges.
“Where our ongoing review develops additional evidence of alleged criminal misconduct, this Office and the Rhode Island State Police are committed to conducting a thorough investigation of such alleged misconduct and bringing criminal charges where appropriate,” said Brian Hodge, spokesman for Neronha.
The report is expected to be finished within the next several months.
The pope also accepted the resignation of the Most Rev. Robert C. Evans as auxiliary bishop of Providence. Evans had requested his retirement earlier this fall. Evans, 75, was ordained in 1973 after attending Providence public schools and receiving a bachelor’s in philosophy from Our Lady of Providence College Seminary in Warwick.
Tobin has to submit his request for retirement when he turns 75. But the pope does not have to grant it right away. Henning said he plans on moving to Rhode Island sometime after the pope accepts Tobin’s resignation.
Henning was born in Rockville Centre, N.Y., in 1964, and is the oldest of five children. On Wednesday, he told reporters that his father was a firefighter and his mother was a nurse. When he was in fifth grade, Henning said, a priest spoke about vocations and Henning turned to a classmate and said, “I think I want to be a priest.”
“That idea came and went over my childhood, but never quite went away. You kind of feel that tug of the Holy Spirit. I realized at one point that I had to respond,” said Henning. He was ordained in 1992 and became an auxiliary bishop at Rockville Centre in 2018, according to his online biography.
He said while his local parish was influential, his calling began at home.
“Both of [my parents] chose paths in life that were devoted to others,” he said. “That left a mark on me.”
This story has been updated with information from the press conference, an interview with Henning, information from the attorney general’s office, and details about the Diocese of Rockville Center, N.Y.
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