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In Bishop Bradley, has Steubenville found its ‘template’?

When Bishop Jeffrey Monforton was named an auxiliary bishop of Detroit five months ago, his Diocese of Steubenville had been through a hard couple of years.

Bishop Paul Bradley. Credit: Diocese of Steubenville.

Monforton himself faced two Vatican-ordered Vos estis lux mundi investigations. The diocesan cathedral was falling apart and had been shuttered, amid a stalled fundraising initiative. And in 2020, a former finance officer and diocesan vicar general were both incarcerated, after they admitted to embezzling hundreds of thousands from the diocese.

If all that wasn’t enough, the diocese had just spent a year on a roller coaster over its future, after Monforton announced in October 2022 that the diocese would be merged into the neighboring Diocese of Columbus.

Monforton told priests that month that the Holy See had raised the prospect of a merger, and that while final approval hadn’t been given, the plan would eventually go through.

In fact, the bishop told The Pillar that month he hoped his approach to spearheading a merger would be of aid to other U.S. dioceses facing that prospect.

“What I’m trying to do is create a template,” for diocesan mergers, Monforton said.

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Priests of Steubenville had other ideas. They quickly raised concern that they had not been consulted about the prospect of the merger, nor had the diocesan finance council, or even the college of consultors. 

Many of them argued that their diocese was viable, and that a merger with the Columbus diocese wouldn’t solve the problems facing the Church in the Ohio Valley.

Instead, many priests said the problem was leadership — that Monforton’s mismanagement made things appear worse than they were, and that the diocese needed concrete changes and new leadership, not a merger.

The priests’ advocacy made a difference. A vote on the prospect of merging the diocese was removed from the U.S. bishops’ conference calendar. The Vatican called for a comprehensive audit of the diocese. 

And after calls for new leadership in the Steubenville diocese, Monforton received an unusual new appointment — he became an auxiliary bishop in another local church, a rare assignment for someone already leading a diocese.

But perhaps the most remarkable element of Monforton’s transfer was the appointment of Bishop Paul Bradley, a 78-year-old retired Michigan bishop, with roots in Pittsburgh, 40 miles east of Steubenville, to serve as Steubenville’s temporary apostolic administrator.

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Bishop Paul Bradley with catechumens and local Catholics Feb. 25, at the Basilica of St. Mary of the Assumption, Marietta. Credit: Diocese of Steubenville.

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It is not clear how Bradley got the Steubenville job, and the bishop has declined interview requests with The Pillar.

But if the Vatican had wanted to keep the merger on track, the appointment of Columbus’ Bishop Earl Fernandes would likely have made more sense, allowing the two dioceses to grow accustomed to each other, by a sort of practical merger of leadership. And even if Fernandes didn’t agree to the job, it would have been a more typical Vatican move to appoint an active Ohio diocesan bishop, perhaps neighboring Youngstown Bishop David Bonnar, to temporarily lead the Steubenville diocese.

Instead, Bradley came out of retirement and moved to Steubenville, with some suggesting that the bishop’s longtime close friend, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, might have suggested the appointment.

But however it happened, Bradley came in with an unusual mandate. 

The prospect of merging the Steubenville diocese with Columbus wasn’t off the table — in fact, some Vatican sources tell The Pillar it was regarded as a fait accompli. In that context, Bradley was to represent the Diocese of Steubenville in discussions with Fernandes to assess the merger and discuss the practicalities, before sending reports to the Holy See.

The job would be difficult for any bishop. And when he first arrived, some Steubenville priests told The Pillar they expected Bradley would be a hatchet man — charged with closing up shop, turning off the lights, and getting out of Dodge.

But the bishop has taken a very different approach.


In December 2023, Bradley announced that he and Fernandes had begun, at the request of the Vatican, a series of meetings to talk through the prospect of merging.

A joint statement emphasized that no decision had been made, and the pope would make the final call.

But while Bradley is not the decision-maker, he’s made his own opinion known.

While most bishops would keep their cards close to the vest, and offer little of their own opinion, Bradley has been direct: He believes the diocese is vibrant, financially stable, and that it can survive. 

And he’s not been shy about saying so. 

In media interviews, to priests and lay people in the diocese, and in a video released last week, Bradley has emphasized that he believes the Steubenville diocese has “strength and vitality,” and that it “can continue to thrive and faithfully further the mission of the Church, the body of Christ.” 

In short, while Bradley has been candid about the Holy See’s continued interest in evaluating a merger, he’s also been unusually candid about his own read of the situation, while rallying local Catholics to hope.

Priests of Steubenville, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record, have told The Pillar they’re shocked. 

“Bishop Bradley has very clearly said that he doesn’t see any reason for this,” one Steubenville priest told The Pillar.

“And I genuinely believe him when he says things,” he added. 

“I don’t know many bishops — I’m not part of that world. But Bishop Bradley is the first bishop where I believe him when he speaks.”

The priest emphasized that Bradley has done more than champion Steubenville in the face of a merger. The bishop has also apologized for past failures in leadership, and spoken about them directly. To address a history of financial malfeasance, Bradley has implemented a series of reform measures, and begun publishing audited financial statements on the diocesan website.

And the bishop has made himself available to priests and laity in the region.

“I think it’s important to recognize how absolutely challenging this [merger conversation] has been for the priests of the Diocese of Steubenville,” a parish pastor in the region explained. 

“It felt like a betrayal of administration from Monforton, with years of incompetence under Monforton — with our cathedral even being completely destroyed — this diocese has been neglected for so long under multiple bishops, and so what happened with the merger announcement was very spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically damaging for priests.”

But Bradley, the priest said, “has been very good with making himself very available, and trying to get the priests together, and visiting them, and being proactive, just to listen to us.”

“People are amazed,” another priest said, “that they can ask to speak with the bishop, and then he’ll call them or meet with them. That hasn’t happened before.” 

Bishop Bradley “has done something remarkable,” the priest added. “He’s gotten our presbyterate to trust him. And we’ve been through some things.”

“But he’s the kind of bishop who, if he asks you to do something, you want to do it.”

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Priests aren’t the only ones to notice that something has changed under Bradley’s leadership.

Local professor Scott Hahn, an internationally known author and speaker, had been among Steubenville laity to lead rosary gatherings after the 2022 merger announcement, praying for the preservation of the local diocese. 

Hahn told The Pillar this week that under Bradley, things are different.

“Since he got here, I had an opportunity to meet with him for breakfast, and it was just remarkable. He’s the kind of spiritual father that, I admit, I strive to be. His leadership is so gentle and strong — not anxious,” Hahn explained.

“Without casting shadows or aspersions upon his predecessors, who’ve all been friends of mine, we have not seen anything quite like this. Obviously, he’s a seasoned veteran … and he’s just so down to earth.”

Hahn said that Bradley had “connected with the priests,” noting that when his own son, a priest of the Steubenville diocese, speaks about Bradley, “the smile becomes almost a glow.”

“I think of the word mensch,” Hahn said. “Bishop Bradley seems to do well in everything he’s been asked to do. But I think of him primarily as a pastor and parish priest. I know people all over the Catholic spectrum, and they all love him. There are many false ideas of prudence out there, but in my opinion he’s the real thing. He listens to people. He doesn’t just pretend to listen to people. I don’t know what else to say about him.”

The theologian said Bradley’s candor about the possibility of merger has been important for the diocese.

“He’s transparent to practically all concerned parties … From the get-go, in all of our conversations, he’s totally available, and also transparent, in a way that I want to be personally — In a way that we need our leaders to be.”

“He’s encouraged the clergy and the laity to take a closer look, and he’s said that we’re not plunged into financial crisis — we’ve got financial challenges, as everyone in the Ohio Valley does — But he finds good things, and he doesn’t invent them, and he shares them. And that’s just so encouraging,” Hahn added.

To some in the Steubenville diocese, it seems that while Monforton boasted about creating a template for exploring a diocesan merger, Bradley might have quietly found one. 

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So what’s the Bradley method?

“He tells the facts, he discusses them, and he recognizes that people have a right to know things. That none of this should be unveiled to them as a great secret or a great surprise, whatever the result of something is,” one priest told The Pillar.

That approach, priests have said, has given them hope that the future of Steubenville’s diocese will be fairly considered at the Vatican.

But is there good reason for that hope? Is Bradley tilting at windmills? Or worse, is he leading the diocese on, offering optimism even while a merger is most likely to happen?

Vatican sources have told The Pillar they believe the Steubenville diocese — one of the smallest in the country — will eventually be merged. And more information will become available in the months to come, with reports due to the Vatican soon, and the U.S. bishops likely to discuss the prospect of a merger at their June meeting.

But in Steubenville itself, Bradley seems to believe the diocese can endure.

“If he didn’t think the diocese could survive, it would almost be as if he were lying, and I don’t think he’s capable of that kind of manipulation,” one Steubenville priest said.

“I think he knows that it’s not up to him personally, but I don’t believe he thinks the merger is inevitable, at all. And that’s meant a lot.”

“He’s an authentic human being,” said one Steubenville priest. “He’s the same in a homily, in a meeting, in an interview. The same person always. He doesn’t put on a persona of any kind. And so, yeah, even the most cynical priests in our diocese — even guys more cynical than me — have come to trust him.”

“He seems actually open to what God wants to do. And he seems to think that God has things he would like to do here.” 

Some Steubenville priests urged that other diocesan bishops, facing other problems, might learn something from the turnaround of morale and expectation in Steubenville.

“If someone wanted to show what the synodal Church looks like, Bishop Bradley would be the one,” a priest explained. “Because he’s very willing to listen, not only to the priests, but to people across the entire diocese.”

“Imagine,” the priest continued, “a bishop who actually listens!”

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