For the north, the closest thing to a native son for bishop

tencerEight months after Bishop Pétur Bürcher’s requested retirement was accepted, the Diocese of Reykjavik gets ready to bid their ten-year bishop goodbye, and welcome a sort-of-native son as his successor. Bishop-elect Dávid Bartimej Tencer, O.F.M. Cap, while Slovak, has been active in Iceland as parish priest since 2004 and that makes him more of an Icelander than any of his four predecessors. The fact that the new bishop is yet to be ordained means that Reykjavik’s cathedral of Christ the King will see it’s first bishop’s ordination since 1988.

In a way this could be considered evidence that Reykjavik is grown up as a diocese, now that it can supply its own bishop. The Church in Iceland is largely an immigrant Church with some 13,000 faithful, and all but one of its priests coming from abroad.

Bishop-elect Tencer was ordained in 1986 for the Diocese of Banská Bystrica in south-central Slovakia, and for the following four years he worked in parishes there. In 1990 he started his novitiate in Order of Capuchin Friars Minor and made his profession the next year. From 1992 to 1994 he studied Franciscan spirituality at the Antonianum in Rome, after which he made his final profession. Back in Slovakia he held various offices within the order, including superior at a convent in Hrinová. In the period between 2001 and 2004 he taught various topics at two seminaries. In 2004, Bishop-elect Tencer came to Iceland and was appointed as parish priest in Reykjavik. Since 2007 he has been parish priest in Reyþarfjörþur and a member of the council of priests of the Diocese of Reykjavik.

Bishop emeritus Bürcher has tried his best to establish religious communities in his diocese, something that Bishop-elect Tencer is well suited to continue.

The Diocese of Reykjavik covers the entire country of Iceland and was established in 1923 as the Apostolic Prefecture of Iceland. In 1929 it became an Apostolic Vicariate and in 1968 a full Diocse. Bishop-elect Tencer will be the 7th ordinary and 5th bishop. His predecessors were:

  • Bishop Martino Meulenberg (Prefect Apostolic 1923-1929; Vicar Apostolic 1929-1941)
  • Bishop Johánnes Gunnarsson (Vicar Apostolic 1942-1967)
  • Bishop Hendrik Hubert Frehen (Bishop 1968-1986)
  • Bishop Alfred James Jolson (Bishop 1987-1994)
  • Bishop Joannes Baptist Mathijs Gijsen (Bishop 1996-2007)
  • Bishop Pétur Bürcher (Bishop 2007-2015)

Bishop-elect David Tencer’s ordination and installation as Bishop of Reykjavik is set for 31 October. Bishop emeritus Pétur Bürcher will remain in office until that date, after which he will divide his time between the Holy Land (where he will focus on prayer as well as organising spiritual exercisies and pilgrimages to support the local Christian communities) and Switzerland (where he will live with the Dominican sisters of St. Peter’s convent in Schwyz).

Criminal or careless? Bishop Gijsen accused in Iceland

It is a story that not so much indicts him as a criminal mastermind or even a bishop with ill will against his accusers, but depicts him much more as a bishop in a strange land who relied too much on his local clergy. The investigation into the abuse history in Iceland’s Diocese of Reykjavík mentions the name of emeritus Bishop Joannes Gijsen several times, most notably in the case of a man who accuses him of covering up a case of sexual abuse by a priest.

A bit of investigative journalism by Dutch blogger Remco van Mulligen reveals facts that the regular media avoids (in favour of partial and suggestive reporting). He outlines the case which is detailed in the report by Icelandic commission which looked into the matter, and we learn that it relates to abuse committed years ago by a now deceased priest of the Diocese of Reykjavík. Bishop Gijsen’s predecessor, Bishop Alfred Jolson met with the victim, who handed him a sealed letter outlining the case, and although the bishop assured the man that he would make sure nothing similar would happen in the future, the letter was left in the diocesan archives. When Bishop Gijsen arrived in 1996 he was urged to pick up the case again. He did so, met with the victim and both agreed that the letter should be destroyed, since there was no clear indication of sexual abuse. All this, according to Bishop Gijsen’s written statement to the commission. There is no letter and the victim is no longer alive.

The sad fact is that the priest in question, who was involved in other abuse cases as well, had an unrivaled position of power within the Icelandic church. Since all of Reykjavík’s bishops have come from abroad (the last four bishops were from the Netherlands, the United States and Switzerland), they relied heavily upon the local clergy, at least to get to know the local situation. No priest was more relied upon, at least by Bishop Gijsen, than one Fr. Ágúst George. And he is now revealed as the main perpetrator of more than one case of sexual abuse.

As Van Mulligen writes:

“The Commission creates a picture of the priest George as someone who saw bishops come and go, and wasn’t concerned by anyone or anything. Gijsen, for example, urged George several times to create an administration of what happened in his school [George served as headmaster of a Church-owned primary school]. The priest assured him he would, but did not keep his word. Gijsen allowed this to happen.”

Whatever the reasons that Bishop Gijsen had for not insisting on further investigation of the claims (for this case was not the only one that he, or Bishop Jolson, neglected), it is clear that more should have been done. Now, under current Bishop Pierre Bürcher, the sad extent of the sexual abuse by Fr. George and physical abuse by school teacher Margét Müller becomes clear only now.

Coupled with the fact that much of the diocesan archives from the period that Gijsen was bishop in Roermond are missing, we get the picture that Bishop Gijsen may have had the right intentions, he lacked the firm proactive hand that should have been employed when the first rumours became clear. It also shows that bishops have the duty to get to know their diocese and take an active role in the running of it, but administratively and pastorally.