RAPID CITY, S.D. – The Toyota parked out back of Rapid City’s Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is a drab little sedan, splattered with grasshoppers, moths and other bugs that loiter along South Dakota’s rural highways.
Its driver is inside the impressive building, a place of worship with soaring ceilings and stained-glass windows depicting the lives of saints.
Blase Joseph Cupich, 61, is comfortable in both places as the Catholic bishop overseeing the Diocese of Rapid City. His car delivers him, most often alone, to all corners of this diocese, where 30,000 Catholics are settled across a sweep of land stretching west from the Missouri River and through the storied Black Hills.
And now, after 12 memorable years building faith and friendships in South Dakota, he brings his talents to Spokane as its sixth bishop.
Conservative Catholics may be disappointed that Cupich is less dogmatic than pragmatic.
Progressive Catholics should not expect a liberal crusader.
Cupich is a careful administrator, a career Catholic clergyman who was ordained at age 26, has taught high school, served as a college president and spent years working in the pope’s diplomatic mission in Washington, D.C.
He’s also considered a leader in the church’s response to clergy sex abuse, long ago adopting a “zero tolerance” policy for clergy who abuse children in his diocese. It has served his diocese well and helped steer it clear of many contemporary problems, although the Catholic Church in South Dakota has yet to fully account for decades of injustices inflicted upon Native American children sent to religious boarding schools.
While he has gained national attention for his work and writings as chairman of the Bishops’ Committee on the Protection for Children and Young People, his priests hold him in high regard.
“Spokane is lucky to have him,” said the Rev. Michael Mulloy, rector of the cathedral in Rapid City. “The priests won’t find a better advocate.”
His new assignment in Spokane presents major challenges in the wake of the diocese’s $48 million bankruptcy to settle allegations of priest sex abuse.
Cupich is quick to note that the last credible accusation of abuse against Catholic clergy in Spokane was some three decades ago.
But the bankruptcy leaves Cupich with a smaller administrative staff than he had in Rapid City, despite triple the number of church members. And the financial problems keep mounting: Abuse accusations from decades ago continue to be made, even though parishioners were given assurances when they raised $10 million to pay victims that the bankruptcy would bring closure and that no more money would be needed.
Still, Cupich said in an interview that he doesn’t view himself as a fixer.
“I don’t see Spokane as a problem to be solved,” he said. “The church is greater than the momentary problems it is experiencing.”
He is determined to lead a vibrant diocese that will celebrate the region’s rich Catholic history – one built upon faith, education, health care and charity.
“The problems that have happened will not be what identifies this diocese,” Cupich said. “And if people need to hear that, then I will tell them.
“We are blessed to be here.”
Leaving mother one of hardest parts
Cupich was born March 19, 1949, in Omaha, Neb., one of nine children to Blase and Mary Cupich. He was named for his now-deceased father, a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service.
His mother, now 86, still lives in Nebraska, and Cupich said one of the difficult parts of this move will be living farther away than a daylong drive.
After high school Cupich earned a degree in philosophy from the University of St. Thomas, a Catholic school in St. Paul, Minn. He studied in Rome for a second degree in sacred theology before earning a master’s degree in theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University.
He was ordained in 1975, appointed as a pastor in Omaha and taught at a parochial high school for three years. Cupich broadened his experience by serving in leadership roles for the Omaha diocese and teaching continuing-education programs at Creighton University.
In 1981, Cupich was appointed secretary of the Nunciature of the United States, the diplomatic mission of the Vatican. His work included representing the Catholic hierarchy during the dynamic tenure of Pope John Paul II.
While in Washington, D.C., he completed his dissertation at Catholic University of America.
One attorney involved in West Coast abuse cases believes the appointment of Cupich is a shrewd move to bring a leader with deep ties to the Catholic hierarchy to a diocese criticized for its handling of the bankruptcy and its frayed relationship with other Catholic institutions and influential parishioners. A group of prominent Catholic attorneys and businessmen had called upon Bishop William Skylstad to resign during the height of the bankruptcy problems.
The lawyer, who asked not to be named, had this to say: “Blase Cupich is not a simple little bishop from nowhere. He is a well-crafted politician.”
He’s also comfortable working with women, which should serve him well in the Spokane Diocese, where women hold administrative roles in parishes and schools.
Cupich’s office in Rapid City is staffed mostly by women. He values their perspective and credits women in his office for “saving me from making some big mistakes,” he said.
“He sets high expectations, as he should,” said Margaret Simonson, chancellor of the Rapid City Diocese. He welcomes input and collaboration but is also a decision-maker, she said.
“Spokane is getting a leader who is kind, patient and supportive,” Simonson said.
Cupich is also a proven fundraiser.
He successfully launched the Terra Sancta project in Rapid City, a $12 million Catholic retreat center. Most of the funds have been secured, and the next bishop of Rapid City will oversee its completion.
Cupich brings a moderate tone to cultural issues.
While honoring the church’s position on abortion, for example, Cupich has written of his opposition to the death penalty in the same articles: “A state that opts for the use of the death penalty inevitably weakens the ability of its citizens to defend the sacredness of human life against all of the threats which imperil life in the present day.”
He eschews inflammatory language and labels.
“It’s very easy in today’s world of polarization to leave civility behind,” he said. “But we must be able to speak of difficult issues in ways that don’t tear apart our communities.”
In Rapid City, Cupich lived in a handsome home, although he said he personally owns few belongings – a favorite chair, books, clothes and some wall hangings.
But he enjoys good food and company, and priests and parishioners alike told of excellent dinner parties and conversation ranging from politics and culture to theology and sports. (His loyalties run Cornhusker red.)
He keeps a circle of close friends and acknowledged his regrets about leaving those relationships behind.
On a recent Friday morning, Cupich celebrated Mass with a devoted group of parishioners. Afterward they served his favorite lunch of meatloaf and mashed potatoes, with ice cream bars for dessert.
They peppered him with questions about a successor and his thoughts about Spokane.
“Why didn’t you just say no?” asked one parishioner.
Cupich smiled and replied, “Well, thank you, Nancy Reagan.”
The room erupted with laughter. Then he took the opportunity to explain how the process works and to disclose that he was given a choice.
“You can say no if you don’t think you can do it,” Cupich said he was told. “Isn’t that tricky?”
Informal luncheons with the bishop after Mass the first Friday of each month have been a staple of the Rapid City Diocese since before Cupich was installed in 1999. He followed Bishop Charles J. Chaput, who now is the archbishop of Denver.
Chaput invited controversy in the 2004 presidential election between George W. Bush and John Kerry when he said Catholics should vote only for Catholic politicians who “act Catholic in their public service and political choices.”
Kerry, a Catholic, supports abortion rights.
Nevertheless, Cupich credits his predecessor for having a clear understanding of the clergy abuse problem years before it erupted in Boston and burned through dioceses across the country.
Chaput adopted a policy in 1993 to immediately investigate abuse allegations and to call authorities. That policy was put to the test just two years later, when a priest admitted to sexually abusing a boy many years before. Rather than allow the issue to fester, Chaput followed the new policy, driving to the priest’s former parish in the small town of Fairfax, S.D., and telling church members what had happened and what was being done about it.
The case went to trial, and the Rapid City Diocese was absolved of wrongdoing. The priest was removed from his duties, and a jury ordered him to pay $242,000.
Cupich removed a priest in 2002 from a parish in the town of Lemmon, S.D., after allegations surfaced that the priest abused a teenage boy.
No suit was filed and no money changed hands. The family wanted the diocese to know what happened. The diocese reported the incident.
At the time Cupich told the Rapid City Journal, “We do not pay hush money.”
During his time in Washington, D.C., Cupich said there were sporadic cases of priest abuse, but nothing that could have predicted the scope of the crisis.
“I don’t think anybody at that point in time knew of the breadth of the problem,” he said.
He believes it can be helpful for abusive priests and victims to meet.
“Sunlight can cure all sorts of infections,” he said.
While Cupich is often quoted as a leading Catholic voice regarding how the church must deal with abuse, he is humbled by and proud of the work of priests in his own diocese, who independently established the nonprofit Lazarus Fund in 2002.
The priests began donating 5 percent of their monthly salaries to the fund, which pays for the therapy costs of victims and their abusers. They also fast and pray one day each month.
“The priests decided they wanted to do something on their own, to take responsibility for the actions of their brothers. Remarkable. I consider it a model for how all (clergy) should act,” Cupich said.
Engaging Native American parishioners
Tim Giago, a noted Oglala Sioux journalist who founded the Lakota Times in the early 1980s, was among the Native American children who were sent to Jesuit-run boarding schools, where Indian children were abused by clergy.
In his book “Children Left Behind: The Dark Legacy of Indian Mission Boarding Schools,” Giago says he’s struck by comparisons of the church’s recent clergy abuse scandals with the experiences of Indian children.
“The abuse splashed across the front pages and TV screens involves modest numbers of mostly white boys and girls. The number of children abused at the Indian mission boarding schools numbered in the thousands,” he writes.
Despite that dark past, the modern Catholic Church remains an important influence in the lives of many Native Americans.
Perhaps one-third of Catholics in western South Dakota are Native American. And while the pews may sit mostly empty during Mass, Cupich said, parishioners turn to the church to mark important events such as baptisms, marriages, holidays and deaths.
The Rapid City Diocese embarked on a project more than a decade ago to meld traditional Native American spirituality with Catholic teachings in an attempt to turn around trends of dwindling numbers of active Catholics among Native Americans.
It has been a struggle, Cupich acknowledges, but the church remains committed to the ministry.
Cupich – he was given the name “wakiya ska,” which translates to White Thunder – said he looks forward to engaging the Native American community of Eastern Washington.
And he is pleased to move to a community with a strong Jesuit tradition. An avid reader and morning exerciser, he anticipates frequenting Gonzaga University’s Foley Center library and the city’s walking trails.
Even as he leaves his Midwestern roots and family behind, he’s looking forward to his new home, he said. “Spokane has much to offer.”