Bishop Matthew Clark dies at 85

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Bishop Matthew H. Clark died Sunday morning. He was 85.

His death was announced by the Diocese of Rochester, which had requested prayers be said for Clark days before.

Clark was born outside Albany in 1937.

After serving in Albany and Rome, Clark was consecrated as bishop of Rochester at the War Memorial in 1979.

He was 42-years-old, one of the youngest American Catholic bishops ever. He was outside the mold. He was the “baby bishop” who liked to jog and he created a culture that welcomed women to ministry, like Meghan Robinson.

She recalled a story when she went with Clark to Bethany House, a shelter in Rochester for women and children, and one of the women came up to Clark.

“And she just burst out crying upon seeing him,” said Robinson. “And she said my life has kind of been in shambles but I remember you. You confirmed me and now you get to meet my baby. And Bishop Matthew picked up the baby and held the baby and I took pictures of this and sent this to her and she said, ‘Oh my goodness. I can’t believe this. He’s still the same. He’s so down-to-earth.’”

In 1996 Clark signed a historic agreement with the Jewish rabbis in Rochester, the first one ever in the United States. It changed the way Catholic institutions taught about Judaism and increased education about the holocaust in Catholic schools. Clark went on missions with Rabbi Alan Katz to Israel and Rome, where Clark introduced Katz to Pope Benedict.

“Many of us in the jewish community used to call him ‘our bishop.’” said Katz. 

Jamie Fazio is the Catholic chaplain at Nazareth College.

“I think he was a francis bishop before Pope Francis,” said Fazio. “That the church needs to be on the margins and be in solidarity with those who have been excluded and silenced.”

That francis work included having Masses with people in the LGBTQ community and migrant workers. But it also got him in hot water with the Vatican, who in 1998 directed Clark to fire Father Bill Callan for allowing women to perform sacraments reserved for ordained priests. And then there is the sex abuse scandal.

A 2004 release from the diocese said the diocese was “in full compliance” with the U.S. church’s charter to protect children and a decade earlier was among the first in the United States to have “specific programs designed to raise awareness and prevent abuse.”

But in a 2020 deposition, after the diocese declared bankruptcy, Clark was questioned about sending priests accused of abuse off to “treatment” and the transcript shows he allowed at least one priest back into ministry where there would be contact with children.

“And I think he struggled in a lot of ways,” said Fazio. “I never had a personal conversation with him about it. I read his deposition and reflected on what he shared and I see someone who struggled to do what was right.”

In 2012, after he turned 75, the pope accepted Clark’s resignation.

 Clark: “I begin my retirement today and will now have the wonderful title… bishop emeritus.”

In 2019, Clark announced he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and in the year before his death, he was unable to communicate.

Robinson: “morning has broken…”

But, last year, when Robinson went to see Clark and played him his favorite song, something changed.

Robinson: “And literally within about three measures of music his face just opened up.”

She says Clark started talking and when the song ended he put his hand on Robinson’s head and blessed her.

Robinson: “To me, he was one of the people the closest I’ve ever experienced to knowing Jesus coming through someone.”