Holley's 'dictatorial' leadership style caused issues in Catholic Diocese of Memphis, local monsignor says

By Published: November 16, 2018 6:58 AM CT Breaking news

Former Memphis Bishop Martin D. Holley ruined the fellowship in the local Catholic diocese, spoke disrespectfully of his predecessor – Bishop Terry Steib – and steered the diocese into financial jeopardy before he was asked to resign by Pope Francis, a local monsignor said.

Monsignor Peter Buchignani outlined the problems of Holley’s leadership in a Nov. 7 letter to Raymond Arroyo, host of “World Over” on EWTN. Arroyo interviewed Holley earlier this month about his removal as head of the Catholic Diocese of Memphis.

In that interview, Buchignani was one of the local clergy leaders Holley blamed for his downfall, along with racism and privilege.

That led Buchignani, a longtime leader of the local church, to dispute Holley’s claims in a four-page letter to Arroyo. Buchignani cited numerous problems with Holley’s leadership, from the well-documented upheaval caused by his immediate transfer of priests throughout the diocese to an arrogant attitude toward those who had served the local church for decades.


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Buchignani called Holley “dictatorial and autocratic.”

“He never listened to his priests, nor did he make any efforts to become acquainted with the Diocese,” the monsignor wrote in his letter. “If a priest disagreed with something Bishop Holley wanted to do, he would become vindictive and mean spirited.”

The monsignor confirmed Tuesday that the letter – obtained by The Daily Memphian – was authentic. The letter was a counterpoint to Arroyo’s interview with Holley in which the ousted bishop indicated his removal was based on revenge, citing Buchignani as one of the instigators.

Buchignani denied having anything to do with the removal and is seeking an apology from the EWTN network and Arroyo.

“If he’s going to slander my name like that … I’m not going to sit here and do nothing,” Buchignani said Tuesday.

Holley became the Memphis bishop in August 2016, replacing Steib, who had reached retirement age. Holley previously served as auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Washington before his appointment in Memphis.

From the start, Holley’s actions caused controversy. He drew the ire of parishioners when he shuffled many of the priests across the 21-county diocese that stretches from the Tennessee River west to the Mississippi River. Estimates ranged from two-thirds to 75 percent of the clergy were moved from their parishes.

There were also indications of financial crisis during the new bishop’s tenure.

The ongoing controversy and problems led to the Vatican sending a team of archbishops to Memphis in June on a fact-finding visit. Holley said in a June 22 letter to diocesan priests that the visit was to “improve the local Church’s ability to minister to the people it serves.”

“He never listened to his priests, nor did he make any efforts to become acquainted with the Diocese. If a priest disagreed with something Bishop Holley wanted to do, he would become vindictive and mean spirited.”
Monsignor Peter Buchignani

About three weeks ago, the Vatican announced Holley was relieved of his duties. The Catholic Diocese of Memphis announced the decision on its website, saying: “(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.”

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville was appointed administrator of the Catholic Diocese of Memphis.

Holley joined Arroyo for an interview shortly after the Vatican’s actions. His claims that he was dismissed because of the actions of local priests, including Buchignani, led to the monsignor’s letter disputing that position.

One of the key issues that seemed to lead to the fact-finding visit from the archbishops was the involvement of Rev. Clement Machado – a priest from Canada whom Holley named vicar general of the diocese. Buchignani noted that Holley chose to select someone from Canada rather than a local member of the clergy as the second in command for the diocese.

Machado resigned the position 10 days after the visit, Holley saying at the time that the vicar general was stepping aside to devote more time to studying for his licentiate degree for Canon Law and to spend time with his recently widowed mother.

Buchignani, in his letter, said Machado never really left the diocese and continued to have a secretary at the local church offices. And, according to Buchignani, the diocesan staff was directed to steer information regarding the operation of the diocese through Machado, who would then decide if it would be sent on to Holley.

Among the monsignor’s other observations was that Macado was a “careless steward of diocesan funds” and treated staff and priests “terribly.”

Buchignani said Holley’s “raw show of power demoralized the priests and angered the faithful.”

He added that Holley’s attitude caused donations to the diocese “to plummet” and the finances continue to suffer. Priests and laity complained to the Roman Catholic Church leadership about the former bishop's approach.

Buchignani also noted that since Holley’s arrival a number of key lay employees have left, including the chief operating officer, chief financial officer, the director of facilities and risk management, along with two communications directors.

As for the claim of racism, Buchignani noted Tuesday that Steib is African-American.

“For him to even (refer) to racism is ridiculous,” Buchignani said.

According to Buchignani, Holley treated Steib “with contempt,” and the former bishop was not allowed to have a key to the Catholic Center on Shelby Oaks Drive where – according to the monsignor – Steib still had an office.

“If you have any doubts about what I have written,” Buchignani said in his letter to Arroyo, “I would also encourage you to reach out to the priests of the diocese of Memphis.

"You will find near unanimity among the priests of the diocese of Memphis that Bishop Holley had to go," the letter continued. "He was not trusted or liked by the vast majority of clergy. He was a poor administrator who needed to be removed before he caused further irreparable damage.”


Catholic Diocese Of Memphis Bishop Martin Holley Monsignor Peter Buchignani EWTN Raymond Arroyo
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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