Monica Yant Kinney: Archbishop piqued over sharing of his e-mail

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 14, 2012

The e-mail was brief and blunt.

"I would be happy to receive good and professional advice, but not when it is delivered as cynically as you have done it," the writer scolded. "Christians do not speak to others that way."

That missive is one of a dozen e-mails readers forwarded me from their remarkable electronic conversations with Archbishop Charles J. Chaput. From the moment the conservative yet high-tech cleric arrived to lead the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, he made it his policy to connect with his new flock.

The archbishop shared his e-mail address, shepherd@adphila.org, and vowed to respond personally, so Catholics flooded him with concerns about school closings, parish politics, and, of course, the clergy sex-abuse crisis and criminal trials.

In a recent interview with my colleague David O'Reilly, Chaput said he "received more negative mail about clergy" during his first year in Philadelphia "than in all the 23 years I've served as bishop."

I e-mailed Chaput about his precedent-setting accessibility, hoping to talk about his hardware (iPad, laptop?) and predawn writing habits. He responded 97 minutes later politely declining, surprised that people disseminated notes he wrote.

"I consider all my personal correspondence . . . to be personal and private," Chaput wrote, asking that I not print the exchanges. "If people shared my responses to e-mail with you, they didn't have my permission to do so."

Prayers and thanks

Some readers gave permission to quote their exchanges, others preferred to talk about the unique opportunity to get to know the spiritual leader of 1.5 million Catholics.

Tom Castaldi of Media called Chaput's replies "direct, respectful, and loving." Practically parental.

"Some things I like hearing," Castaldi said, some "I do not."

Typically, Chaput offers thanks and prayers for his correspondents.

"We may not always agree," said Joe Gable, a retired bank executive in Bucks County, "but he always explains his positions, and for that I am grateful."

When pressed or second-guessed, Chaput can get snippy. After parents sent identical e-mails about a school merger, he chided them for the coordinated effort.

Chaput's annoyance intrigued me, since the Archdiocese of Denver, which he previously led, used a similar campaign in 2006 to defeat a bill aiming to make it easier for sex-abuse victims with old claims to sue molesters and institutions.

Chaput had a letter read at Mass arguing that the bill unfairly targeted Catholics. Then, nearly 25,000 protest cards went out to parishioners who were asked to sign and mail them to state representatives.

War of words

Bill Brennan is not someone I expected would wage a war of words with Chaput. Brennan is, after all, a respected defense lawyer representing the Rev. James Brennan (no relation), accused of attempted rape.

After jurors deadlocked over the summer, the priest sought a meeting with Chaput. The archbishop agreed, Bill Brennan told me, setting ground rules that barred discussion of the case.

James Brennan attended without representation, and his account of what transpired so concerned Bill Brennan that he e-mailed Chaput. The attorney declined to share Chaput's 4 a.m. response, but said it included a troubling line about the archbishop referring the note to his legal advisers.

"The conflict I struggle with emanates from the feelings I have as a lawyer who, so far, has successfully represented one of his priests with not as much as a thank-you, and as a lifelong Roman Catholic who looks to the archbishop for spiritual leadership," Brennan told me. "I believe the faithful expect compassion, not condescension."

At least Brennan wasn't called "manipulative," as was psychologist Joe McGrory after criticizing Chaput's handling of school crises.

"Perhaps you could have done a better job yourself, but I doubt it, because of the tone of your e-mail," the archbishop admonished. "It is rather self-promoting. You can only play that trick once."


Contact Monica Yant Kinney

at 215-854-4670, myant@phillynews.com, or

follow on Twitter @myantkinney.

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