Bishop resigns from charity amid furor over racial slur McNamara steps down after 1 1/2 years as director of Catholic Relief Services

March 28, 1997|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,SUN STAFF

A Roman Catholic bishop who served as a director of Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services resigned yesterday from the international relief agency under pressure from staff members outraged by his use of a racial slur.

During a meeting here three weeks ago, Bishop Lawrence McNamara, 68, of Grand Island, Neb., said the agency has had problems raising funds because potential contributors complain that they are tired of giving money to "niggers, Hispanic-Americans and people on welfare."

The dozen people at the meeting were offended and some asked the bishop to avoid such language, according to Ken Hackett, executive director of the agency.

McNamara did not recant at the meeting nor did he apologize.

However, in an interview yesterday, McNamara said he regretted making the statement. The remarks do not reflect his feelings, he said, but the "racist attitudes" of those who refuse to contribute money to Catholic Relief Services' domestic programs.

"The remarks reflect the racist attitudes that have been conveyed to me over the years," he said.

"Nevertheless, my remarks in and of themselves must have been offensive, and in retrospect I can see how they would have been."

McNamara, who presides over the diocese of western Nebraska, added, "I love to tell stories and do role playing and things like that. But I was clearly lacking in sensitivity that day. That's my fault, nobody else's."

McNamara was named to the CRS board of directors 1 1/2 years ago and says he has supported the work of the agency for more than 40 years. He said he decided to resign from the board because he did not want his presence to tarnish the reputation of CRS.

"It's a humbling experience to realize that at the age of 68 you can still be insensitive to the feelings of others without even realizing it," he said.

"Maybe I'm glad somebody called it to my attention. Why not? I don't know how many years I have left, but I want to try to be a better person."

Two days after McNamara made the remarks, Bishop John H. Ricard, chairman of the board, met with the 210 members of the CRS staff. About 25 percent of the staff is African-American, officials there say.

Ricard, who served as auxiliary bishop in Baltimore before becoming the bishop of Pensacola, Fla., this month, apologized for McNamara's remarks and promised that appropriate action would be taken.

In a written statement, Ricard said, "Catholic Relief Services has not and will not tolerate remarks or actions which are offensive or can be construed as offensive."

Wanda Mitchell, an African-American advertising coordinator at CRS, attended the meeting where McNamara used the slur. Mitchell, 26, said McNamara's comments made her feel "completely disempowered" and "at wits' end."

In an interview yesterday, her voice still shook when she spoke about McNamara.

She said that she was relieved by the bishop's resignation, but that more serious measures should be taken against him.

"Someone in a leadership position taking those kinds of stands is appalling to me," she said. "The fact that he is still a bishop is scary. He's still in a position where he can influence the attitudes of others and that to me is just scary."

Nebraska's three dioceses are among the nation's most conservative. Last May, the bishop of Lincoln ordered the excommunication of Catholics who were members of groups including Planned Parenthood, because it operates abortion clinics, and Call to Action, which supports ordaining women and married men.

Pub Date: 3/28/97

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