Pope Francis has appointed Bishop Stephen Wright, an auxiliary in the Archdiocese of Birmingham, as the new Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle.
This follows the publication on Monday of a report on the diocese by the Catholic Safeguarding Standards Agency (CSSA) which found “serious failures of leadership” by Bishop Robert Byrne, who resigned in December saying the office had become “too great a burden”.
In a letter to the people of the diocese published today, Bishop Wright said that he accepted the appointment “with joy, albeit nervous joy at present”, and recognised that a diocesan bishop’s ministry was “onerous”.
“I will be serving in an area I am not familiar with, and I am painfully aware that you have suffered hurt and shock in recent months,” he said.
Since Bishop Byrne’s resignation, there have been a number of damaging revelations about his governance and events during his tenure from 2019.
Bishop Wright said that, prior to his installation in July, he would “be learning about the troubling history and the way the diocese needs to respond to this history”. He committed to respond to the recommendations of the CSSA report.
Stephen Wright was born in Stafford and educated at the town’s Bower Norris RC Primary School and the Blessed William Howard RC Secondary School. He read law at Leicester University and was called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1993, before entering training for the priesthood.
He studied in Oscott and Rome and was ordained in 2000 in the Archdiocese of Birmingham, where he worked in parish ministry and various diocesan posts, including as vicar general and as a member of the diocesan safeguarding commission. He was the co-ordinator of the archdiocese’s participation in a case study inquiry by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse and worked on implementing its recommendations.
He was appointed auxiliary bishop in March 2020 and installed in September that year after a pandemic-induced delay.
The Archbishop of Liverpool, Malcolm McMahon, who has been the apostolic administrator of Hexham and Newcastle since Bishop Byrne’s resignation, said that Bishop Wright’s experience in Birmingham “has prepared him for this challenging role”.
Archbishop McMahon conducted a Vatican inquiry into the circumstances of Bishop Byrne’s departure which reported in May. He concluded that the bishop had resigned after “a succession of errors of judgement” made his position untenable.
The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, welcomed Bishop Wright’s appointment as “timely and most fitting”, noting his “sharp awareness and knowledge of the legal frameworks, both canonical and civil, within which a diocesan Church carries out its mission”.
The Archbishop of Birmingham, Bernard Longley, praised the appointment.
“With his considerable pastoral experience and wisdom, he will approach his new responsibilities in Hexham and Newcastle with energy and enthusiasm, but always sensitive to the history and character of his new diocese,” he said.
Among other posts, Bishop Wright has been Cafod’s chair of trustees since Easter this year, when he took over from the Bishop of Salford, John Arnold. In Lent 2022 he raised £1,610 for the agency by completing its Walk Against Hunger challenge.
Cafod’s director Christine Allen said she was “delighted” at his appointment to Hexham and Newcastle.
“He will be a wonderful asset to the diocese and the local community,” she said. “At Cafod we’ve already benefited hugely from his passion and commitment to our work, and I am certain he will have a similar impact in this new role.”
In his letter, Bishop Wright addressed a number of subjects pertinent to the recent reports on the diocese.
He said that it was “essential that I model best practice in safeguarding matters in my personal conduct and by following the national safeguarding policies”, which Bishop Byrne was found to have neglected.
Bishop Wright also emphasised the evil of child abuse images and said that, while ministering to all offenders, the Church’s pastoral care of them “must be appropriate and carefully managed”.
“As your bishop, I will not enter pastoral ministries or social friendships that will compromise my commitment to best safeguarding practice,” he said.
He also noted the controversy surrounding the 2020 purchase of a new house for the bishop in the prosperous Newcastle suburb of Gosforth, and said that after moving in he would decide on future living and working arrangements after two years of discernment.