A Minnesota priest selected to be the new bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Rapid City comes from a diocese that concluded bankruptcy proceedings last year agreeing to pay tens of millions of dollars to victims of child sexual abuse.
Father Peter Muhich, 59, said addressing the abuse of victims was “obviously a very difficult process” for the church and especially for the victims themselves.
“Of all things, when our priests violate the trust of a child it’s just a terrible thing,” Muhich said. “We just emerged from bankruptcy in the Diocese of Duluth having to account for that.”
It was a painful, expensive accounting that affects the financial resources available for other needs in the diocese. But it was appropriate and instructive accounting, too, Muhich said.
“We’ve learned through the bankruptcy that we can live more simply,” he said. “I think it’s absolutely fitting. The church is always most credible as a litmus when it leads a humble and simple life, like the Lord himself.”
Muhich, who expects to be ordained as bishop and begin his duties here by mid- to late summer, noted that Pope Francis has led the way in promoting clerical humility in the Catholic Church. The pope has focused on outreach to the edges of society, making biblically meaningful gestures such as washing the feet of prison inmates, the poor, migrants, the elderly and the disabled.
“He’s going out to the flock and expressing that,” Muhich says. “I like the fact that he’s applying it broadly. I think it’s his way of saying that the church is accessible to everyone.”
The foot-washing ritual comes from the accounts of Jesus washing the feet of the Apostles at the Last Supper. Muhich chose for his episcopal motto — essentially an affirmation of belief and guidance — a reading from John where Jesus tells the Apostles that they should use his foot-washing gesture as an example on how to treat others.
The abuse of children by priests was a horrid deviation from that example, of course. And Muhich said the church must continue its work to support victims and provide a safe environment for all, especially children.
“To the very best of our ability, we have to be vigilant and make sure our churches and schools are the safest environment possible,” he said. “And when something does happen, we have to call law enforcement immediately and let them do their job and not try to investigate those things on our own. That has proven to be a mistake over and over again.”
Most cases of sexual abuse by priests are decades old. And during the last 20 years the church has put in place extensive systems for abuse prevention and reporting. But the need for continued and improved vigilance was affirmed last year here in Rapid City.
Father John Praveen, a priest from India who had served for less than a year in the Diocese of Rapid City, was sentenced to six years in prison for sexually abusing a teenage girl at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cathedral, the mother parish of the diocese.
And that wasn’t the only distressing news in the diocese. Two months ago, former Rapid City priest Marcin Garbacz was found guilty by a jury in federal court of felony charges connected to the theft of more than $250,000 in church donations.
When asked about Garbacz, Muhich had no direct comment on the case but said “people want to know when they give to the church that their money will go where they thought it was going.
“Unfortunately, sometimes there are dishonest people and we have to confront that,” he said. “My approach would be to deal with it directly and cooperate with law enforcement and be as up front as possible.”
The two high-profile criminal cases in Rapid City complicated multi-million-dollar fundraising for a new chancery for the diocese in a remodeled building downtown and other projects and programs. Muhich understands the challenges there, too, having overseen major building projects at Catholic parishes and schools and working for a time as the diocesan finance officer in Duluth.
“I’m familiar with those things. And I hope my experience will help us address the needs of the Rapid City Diocese,” he said. “I don’t like to spend money unnecessarily.”
Muhich grew up with devout Catholic parents and six brothers and sisters in Eveleth, Minn., a heavily Catholic town in the Iron Range about 60 miles north of Duluth. After graduating from high school in Eveleth, he attended seminary at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., then went on to the American College of the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium.
Muhich was ordained a priest on Sept. 29, 1989, in the Diocese of Duluth.
He has never been to the Black Hills. But after growing up in a forested region dominated by iron-ore mining and processing, Muhich believes he will connect with the mining history and culture of this region. And knowing the economic ups and downs of iron-ore mining might help him understand the ranch community and its financial peaks and valleys, he said.
Muhich also looks forward to ministering to Native Americans in western South Dakota and learning more about the Lakota culture. He has served Native American Catholics in the Diocese of Duluth, which includes five Ojibwa reservations.
“I don’t know much about the Lakota culture,” he said. “I have a lot to learn.”
Muhich is particularly interested in learning more about Lakota spiritual leader Nicholas Black Elk and helping with the effort to have him declared a Catholic saint. Black Elk was noted for blending Lakota spirituality with a deep Catholic faith. He was a Catholic catechist, bringing hundreds of Native people to the faith.
“We need to recognize where and how God raises up holy men and women in all our churches, but especially among Native people, who have a history of suffering,” Muhich said.
Muhich’s predecessor in Rapid City, Bishop Robert Gruss, began the cause for canonization of Black Elk in 2017 with unanimous consent from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Gruss left the diocese last July to become bishop of the Diocese of Saginaw, Mich.
Since then, Father Michel Mulloy has filled the bishop’s role as diocesan administrator, which gave him a deeper understanding of the weight of responsibility facing Muhich. Mulloy is confident that the bishop-elect is ready.
“I find him to be solid, balanced and already deeply concerned for our diocese,” Mulloy said. “He will be a great blessing for us.”
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