Bishop Robert J. Cunningham visits Syracuse Diocese, will be installed May 26

By Connie Berry
SUN editor

The Diocese of Syracuse welcomed its 10th bishop today, April 21, 2009. Bishop Robert J. Cunningham came to Syracuse for the announcement and an inaugural visit. Bishop Cunningham has been serving the neighboring Diocese of Ogdensburg as its ordinary since 2004.

At a morning press conference in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Bishop James M. Moynihan welcomed his successor saying, “I have known and worked with Bishop Cunningham for a number of years and witnessed his many gifts and talents. I know him to be a strong pastor, a gifted administrator and a genuine shepherd of souls. He knows the beauty of this region and the strength of our people.”

The bishops were joined in the Cathedral by the College of Consultors, media and many staff members.

Bishop Cunningham, 65, grew up in Buffalo and was ordained a priest by Aux. Bishop Bernard J. McLaughlin on May 24, 1969 at St. Joseph New Cathedral in Buffalo. His first assignment was associate pastor at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Kenmore. In 1972 he became the assistant pastor at his home parish of St. John the Baptist, also in Kenmore.
He was named secretary to Bishop Edward D. Head and assistant chancellor of the Diocese of Buffalo in 1974. After completing his Licentiate Degree in Canon Law, Bishop Cunningham was named a judge in the marriage tribunal and vice chancellor of the diocese. He was named a monsignor by John Paul II in 1984. In 1985 he was appointed chancellor for the diocese and the following year, vicar general. In January 2002, Bishop Henry J. Mansell named Bishop Cunningham pastor of St. Louis Church in downtown Buffalo. In December of 2003, the diocesan College of Consultors in Buffalo elected him diocesan administrator, a position he held until his installation as the Bishop of Odgensburg.

Bishop Moynihan noted at the press conference that Bishop Cunningham has a strong and steady stride. He also said jokingly, “I remember when I used to walk like that,” in reference to his current physical challenges. Bishop Moynihan uses a cane to help support his weakened knees. “He looks every inch a bishop,” Bishop Moynihan said.

In his initial remarks, Bishop Cunningham greeted everyone with the gift of peace. “As I greet each of you here and all in the Diocese of Syracuse for the first time, I pray that you will experience the joy of that same gift and be strengthened in your faith.”

After Bishop Cunningham’s opening remarks, he answered questions from the media. Local reporters asked questions ranging from his opinion on current legislation on the statute of limitations and gay marriage to whether or not he would be reversing any of Bishop Moynihan’s decisions regarding the closing of parishes.

Bishop Cunningham said he does not feel the legislation opening the window of the statute of limitations on cases of clergy sex abuse would prevent a single child from being abused. “We have to recognize what happened. We have to provide a safe environment for our children today so it will not happen again. Sexual abuse of children is a crime and a tragedy,” Bishop Cunningham said.

He said the window would open up cases from 50 years ago and the priests involved would likely be deceased. Judges would be hearing cases where there would perhaps be no reliable witnesses available. “The legislation targets the church and it is wrong. It treats victims unfairly. Those in public schools will have no recourse,” he said.

In regard to the question about reversing reconfiguration decisions, the bishop-designate said, “I’m sure those decisions were made from careful study. Not everyone is happy but I wouldn’t see myself reopening a parish that was closed.”

While the Syracuse Diocese celebrated a decision that took nearly two years, the people of the Ogdensburg Diocese were a little less joyful.

Sister Ellen Rose Coughlin, SSJ, the Superintendent of Catholic Schools in the Ogdensburg Diocese, was in Syracuse with her mother at St. Joseph’s Hospital when Bishop Cunningham stopped there to visit. The bishop took a few minutes out of his full schedule to greet Sister Ellen Rose’s ailing mother.

“He is a wonderful, genuine, sincere bishop,” Sister Ellen Rose said of Bishop Cunningham. “He’s a prayerful priest and he’s got a great sense of humor. He’s outstanding as a leader. He’s a real gem.”

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