Vatican relieves Bishop Holley of duties; Kurtz to oversee local Catholic diocese

By Updated: October 24, 2018 6:30 PM CT | Published: October 24, 2018 6:14 AM CT

Bishop Martin David Holley, chosen to lead the local Catholic Church about two years ago, has been relieved of his duties as leader of the Diocese of Memphis, the Vatican announced early Wednesday, and Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville will oversee the diocese until further notice.

In a statement on the Catholic Diocese of Memphis website, there are indications the action stemmed from the fact-finding visit from a team of archbishops last June. “(A)fter several efforts to restore peace and serenity ... His Holiness Pope Francis has relieved of his responsibilities as Ordinary the most Reverend Martin D. Holley.”

The removal is effective immediately, according to the statement which came from Archbishop Kurtz, according to CDOM officials. Holley's picture remained on the CDOM site until early afternoon, when it was removed and replaced with the announcement of a "New Appointment" and a link to Kurtz' statement.

Early Wednesday morning, The Daily Bulletin from the Holy See – the official information source for the Vatican – stated: “The Holy Father Francis has removed from the pastoral care of the diocese of Memphis, United States of America, H.E. Msgr. Martin D. Holley, and has appointed as apostolic administrator “sede vacante et ad nutum Sanctae Sedis” of the same diocese H.E. Msgr. Joseph E. Kurtz, archbishop of Louisville.”

Sandra Goldstein, director of human resources for the diocese, said Wednesday morning that local officials would have no comment on the report and directed all inquiries – including whether Holley was at the offices – to the Apostolic Nuncio Office in Washington. The Apostolic Nuncio is the Ambassador for the Vatican in the United States.

“I humbly accept the appointment of our Holy Father, Pope Francis, to serve as the Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Memphis, while remaining Archbishop of Louisville,” Kurtz said in his statement on the CDOM site.

“I am eager to work with the priests, curia, and faithful of the Diocese of Memphis to promote stability, peace, and healing until Pope Francis appoints a new bishop. I have admired the Church in Memphis for many years, particularly from my time as Bishop of Knoxville.

“I ask for prayers for Bishop Martin Holley as he departs from this local church and for the entire Church of Memphis. Let us pray for one another during this time of transition.”

Holley was appointed bishop of the Memphis diocese in August, 2016, replacing Bishop J. Terry Steib, who announced his retirement. Holley, 63, served as auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Washington before his appointment in Memphis.

The action by the Vatican ends a tumultuous period for local Catholics who never connected with Holley and whose tenure as leader of the diocese was controversial. 

Among his first actions was to shuffle many of the priests across the 21 West Tennessee counties overseen by the bishop. Those counties stretch from the Mississippi River, east to the Tennessee River and from the Kentucky border to the southern state line.

There also were indications of financial crisis since Holley’s arrival.

The transfers drew the ire of parishoners at churches throughout the diocese. Some of the most vocal resistance came from Church of the Incarnation in Collierville, where many in the congregation were upset that Rev. Ernie DeBlasio was moved after serving three years as pastor.

At least one Church of the Incarnation member sent a letter asking the papal nuncio in Washington to override the decision to move DiBlasio.

DiBlasio is pastor at St. Ann Bartlett.

Privately, other priests expressed their displeasure with Holley’s wholesale move of priests. Some estimated about 75 percent received new assignments.

Whether because of the complaints about the priests’ moves or other factors, the Vatican sent two archbishops to Memphis in June on a fact-finding visit. In a letter to the priests at the time, Holley acknowledged the visit by the archbishops.

“Many of you may have read, seen or heard news … that an apostolic visitation was made to our diocese,” Holley wrote in the June 22 letter. “We are respectful of the confidentiality of the Apostolic Nunciature’s process and are thankful that some of you were invited to participate in that process.

“The purpose of an apostolic visitation is to assist the local diocese and improve the local Church’s ability to minister to the people it serves.”

Another reported reason for the visit involved the appointment of Monsignor Clement J. Machado from Canada as the vicar general – the second-highest ranking leader of the Memphis diocese. Within days of the fact-finding visit by the archbishops, Holley sent another letter saying Machado was resigning as vicar general to concentrate on his final year of studying for his license in Canon Law. Machado also was leaving to care for his elderly mother.

In the June 30 letter announcing Machado’s departure, Bishop Holley announced he was appointing Msgr. Victor Ciaramitaro as vicar general. “When I am out of the diocese, Monsignor Ciaramitaro V.G. will be in charge,” the bishop wrote.

Regarding those letters, all inquiries about the matters were steered to Vince Higgins, then-communications director for the diocese.

Higgins declined to elaborate on the situations, although he did verify the authenticity of the Machado resignation.

Higgins has since left the diocese.

Holley came to Memphis from the Archdiocese of Washington, where he served as auxiliary bishop to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who recently was stripped of his priestly duties and cardinal designation after accusations of sexual misconduct.

 McCarrick attended Holley’s installation as the local leader of the Catholic Church in October, 2016. After the accusations against McCarrick were deemed credible in June, Holley issued a statement asking people to “keep Cardinal McCarrick and the person in your prayers that God may provide His merciful grace of healing for all.

“The Diocese of Memphis in Tennessee is committed to identifying and reporting any allegations of child abuse; to the prevention of abuse before it occurs; and to care for those victims who have suffered abuse.”


Catholic Diocese of Memphis Bishop Martin Holley Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz
Clay Bailey

Clay Bailey

Clay Bailey, a lifelong Memphian, has worked as a reporter in the city almost four decades. He concentrated on suburban coverage. He also is a freelance sportswriter for the Associated Press.

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