Former Archbishop Harry Flynn, who led Minnesota's largest Catholic diocese for more than a dozen years and struggled with fallout from the church's sexual abuse scandal as it played out across the country, has died. He was 86.
The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis reported that Flynn died Sunday night. The Rev. John Malone, a longtime friend and colleague, said Flynn had several bouts with cancer in recent years and had moved into hospice care in the Twin Cities last Tuesday.
"He never wanted to be a bishop," said Malone, who was a professor and administrator at the University of St. Thomas. "He'd do anything he could to get out of the office. He was a man who wanted to be present to the people he served."
Flynn took over as archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis in 1995, after previously working in New York, Maryland and Louisiana. In 2002, he led a task force of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that looked into the clergy sexual abuse crisis.
Flynn retired in 2008, but continued to live in Minnesota until his death. Following later revelations of abuse by archdiocesan priests during his tenure, he resigned from the University of St. Thomas Board of Trustees in 2013.
Two years later, in a deposition related to abuse lawsuits, Flynn said under oath that he recalled few details of steps taken under his watch in his own diocese to root out problem priests. He didn't recall ever trying to defrock a priest despite later evidence of numerous offenders during that time, he said.
"All of that took a significant toll on him," said Sister Fran Donnelly, who served under Flynn as director of ministry during most of his tenure.
David Clohessy, former national president of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he viewed Flynn as just another church leader who didn't do enough in the face of mounting evidence.
"He was affable, charming, smart — like so many bishops," Clohessy said. "But he refused to take very simple, common-sense, proven steps that could have protected kids."
Flynn was born May 2, 1933, in Schenectady, N.Y. Malone said Flynn's parents died before he was a teenager, after which he was mostly raised by three aunts. He attended seminary in Maryland and worked as a priest there and his home state before joining the Diocese of Lafayette, La., as bishop in the late 1980s.
At the time Flynn took over, that diocese was reeling from its own abuse scandal.
"Everyone knew why he was there," said Jason Berry, a journalist and author who covered those scandals at the time and later wrote a book, "Lead Us Not Into Temptation," about the church scandals. "He had the reputation of being a reformer, being part of the solution."
The Rev. Ken Bartsch worked as a priest in a neighboring Louisiana diocese when Flynn took over in Lafayette. He said Flynn had a big personality and gregarious manner.
"He had that politician's gift. But there was also a certain iron fist under that silk glove," said Bartsch.
Flynn came to Minnesota to succeed Archbishop John Roach, who'd served in the job for two decades. Donnelly had been appointed to her leadership job by Roach, whose own reputation at that time as a reformer on abuse issues may have contributed to the decision to install Flynn, she said. Donnelly also recalled Flynn as a pastor at heart who was happier when he was out among the congregations and mixing with churchgoers.
"He had a fabulous sense of humor and loved to tease people," Donnelly said.
Flynn was viewed in some quarters as liberal-minded on some church matters, especially in comparison to his successor, Archbishop John Nienstedt, who later resigned under pressure over the abuse scandals.
It's true Flynn didn't come down as hard on some congregations that flouted traditional church teaching on issues like homosexuality, Donnelly said. But she said he would have taken great issue with being called a liberal Catholic.
In an interview when he took over as archbishop. Flynn said he was conservative regarding the faith, adding: "Would I be liberal about the taking of that faith and making sure every person is fed and clothed and taken care of? Absolutely."
Conflict over abuse scandals
In 2002, the leadership of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops appointed Flynn to lead the church's highest committee devoted to issues surrounding clerical sexual abuse. He replaced a New Hampshire archbishop who had faced criticism for his handling of the issue, according to a New York Times story at that time. Under Flynn, the panel drafted a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
But abuse scandals continued to surface, including the allegations from under Flynn's watch. He said in the 2015 deposition that his work leading the panel may have distracted him from addressing problems in his own backyard.
Last year, a bankruptcy judge approved a $210 million settlement between the Archdiocese of St. Paul and more than 400 survivors.
After Flynn's retirement, Malone said, he maintained a small circle of friends. Before entering hospice, Malone said, Flynn had been living in the parish rectory at the Church of St. Vincent de Paul in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood.
Malone said Flynn knew in recent days that his end was coming.
"He was ready to go," Malone said. "He wasn't afraid at all."