Bishop Martino Legacy One of Impact and Controversy

By Kevin Zwick
Outlook Editor

After six turbulent years as the head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Scranton, Bishop Joseph Martino retired August 31st from his post. For some, this is a sad occasion, but for others, it is a relief.

My first experience with Bishop Martino was in 2003, when I started my senior year at the now defunct Bishop Hannan High School, which was located on Wyoming Ave., in downtown Scranton. Our Director of Religious Formation was Fr. Tom Sinnott, who was a great human being that acted more like a father figure than a priest. He was open to conversation, gave great advice to many students, offered help to anyone in need and was also a great basketball player. His tenure at our school ended around the same time Bishop James Timlin retired as the Head of the Diocese of Scranton ended in the summer of 2003.

Fr. Tom remained as a teacher of a Theology at Hannan for the remainder of my senior year, but his guidance over the students was limited to those (including myself) who took his honors Theology class. His replacement was Fr. James Dougher, who too was a great man; but there were stark differences in the personalities of the two men.

One might say the two personalities of the Chaplains at Bishop Hannan accurately reflected the personalities of their superiors. While both Fr. Sinnott and Bishop Timlin were outgoing individuals who were open to conversation and were willing to listen to the ideas of others, Fr. Dougher and Bishop Martino were strict individuals, who were not open to the ideas of others, but had a “my-way-or-the-highway” mentality. This attitude was not necessarily a bad thing, especially when face with the difficult duty at hand.

A tough task

Bishop Martino was brought to the Scranton Diocese to perform a difficult task: Shut down churches and schools that are the cornerstones in many communities. He also found himself in the middle of controversy.

In 2007, Bishop Martino announced a huge shift in Catholic education, closing 10 schools in Luzerne County and five in Lackawanna County. Along with the school closings was the consolidation of 58 churches in Lackawanna County down to 30.

Bishop Martino also had to deal with a Catholic Teachers union which lobbied for recognition. Bishop Martino refused to recognize the diocesan teachers union and this led to an ongoing struggle with union president Mike Milz, who was fired from his job at Holy Redeemer High School in Wilkes-Barre. The Bishop’s decision also led state Rep. Eddie Pashinski to introduce legislation this year that would allow unions in religious schools to bring grievances to the state Labor Relations Board.

These tasks were tough decisions to make, but the Bishop Martino held strong to the job he was brought in to do. When the Bishop began to get involved in the election of 2008, his hard-line views began to push away many Catholics in the area.


One instance occurred when Bishop Martino arrived unannounced during a political forum in Honesdale in October 2008. He chastised the group for holding the forum and discussing excerpts from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ position on voting issues. The document defines abortion and euthanasia, as well as racism, torture and genocide, as among the most important issues for Catholics.

Bishop Martino also made threats to close St. Peter’s Cathedral during St. Patrick’s Day celebrations this year if elected officials who support abortion rights were featured at local celebrations. In 2008, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton marched in the Scranton St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Bishop Martino also denied Vice President Joe Biden and any other public figure Communion if they supported Pro-Choice legislation, including U.S. Sen. Bob Casey who is a resident of Scranton.

Bishop Martino asked Misericordia University to close its Diversity Institute this year after the group hosted a gay-rights speaker at its annual dinner. The bishop publicly criticized the appearance o Keith Boykin, founder of the National Black Justice Coalition. The bishop also asked the local Catholic universities if the student health centers on campus provided contraceptives to students. The university presidents responded by saying student health services on campus do not supply students with condoms or oral contraceptives. Bishop Martino said this was insufficient information, and requested they prove it in documentation.

Retirement and Legacy

When Bishop Martino officially stated he was to retire, he did so by addressing the exhausting stress of the office and acknowledging the rift he leaves behind.

“I think by the world’s standards I have not perhaps been successful here,” he said. “But I know in my heart that I have been faithful.” He said the sorrow he felt at leading a divided diocese led to “bouts of insomnia and at times crippling physical fatigue.”

Bishop Martino said that he hopes his legacy will be the ongoing process he began of restructuring and rejuvenating parishes. This would be great, but perhaps what will over shadow his legacy is not what he did but the way in which he did them. His management style caused many parishioners and priests to leave the Church.

In an article published in The Scranton Times by writer Laura Legere, Joseph K. Grieboski, a Scranton native and the founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute on Religion and Public Policy, said it will remain a mystery “why Rome accepted his resignation at such a young age and with no obvious physical malady. All the indications are that this is a matter of great importance to Rome, by virtue of everything that’s happening and the personalities involved.”

Why Scranton would matter to Rome, he said, is based on the history, size and strength of the diocese. People who become upset with diocesan leadership in “major cities” like New York, Los Angeles or Washington rarely garner much notice, he said. “The majority of the population isn’t Catholic and so it’s hard to tell them the real reasons,” he said. “But in a bastion of Catholicism on the United States like Scranton, for people to become disaffected has an impact.”