Archbishop Buechlein’s cancer is rare at his age

By Robert King

The cancer diagnosed in Indianapolis Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein is a relatively rare form that is especially unusual in people older than 60, a medical expert said Thursday, but is a kind that’s curable in a majority of cases.

Buechlein, 69, underwent medical tests Thursday, including a CT scan, to determine how much the disease, diagnosed last week, might have spread. The results weren’t available, but in a statement released Wednesday, Buechlein said he expects to begin chemotherapy soon.

“I would appreciate your prayers, and please know that I will continue to pray for all of you,” Buechlein said.

Hodgkin’s disease is a cancer of the body’s lymph nodes, cells that play an essential role in fighting infection. Only about 7,000 cases are diagnosed each year, said Dr. Michael J. Robertson, an oncologist with the Indiana University School of Medicine. Typically, Hodgkin’s is a young person’s disease, affecting people in their 20s and 30s.

While younger patients typically have better outcomes, Robertson said Hodgkin’s is curable in about 90 percent of all cases diagnosed early. People diagnosed in later stages are still cured in about half the cases. A church spokesman said Thursday that Buechlein’s prognosis is not clear.

“The only thing his oncologist has told him so far,” said spokesman Greg Otolski, “is that chemotherapy is a good way to treat this, and we don’t have any reason right now to believe that it won’t be an effective treatment for you.”

Although he was out Thursday for treatment, Buechlein was working in the office earlier this week and has no plans to resign, Otolski said. On Tuesday, Buechlein went to the archdiocese’s Meridian Street offices to inform his staff of the diagnosis.

“His plan is to still continue to do his job as always,” Otolski said, “with one caveat: that the chemotherapy may make him tired enough for certain periods that, right after he undergoes it, he might have to change his schedule.” .

Buechlein, a native of Jasper, grew up working in farms and factories before training for the priesthood at the St. Meinrad (Ind.) Archabbey. As the bishop of Memphis, Tenn., he became acquainted with Mother Teresa, who brought her Missionaries of Charity to the city to serve the poor. In 1992, Buechlein was named by Pope John Paul II as the fifth archbishop of Indianapolis, which covers 39 counties in central and southeastern Indiana. Today, it has more than 234,000 Catholics.

Buechlein worked with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, on the Catholic catechism for the United States and was delighted when the German-born cardinal was Elected pope. While progressives and liberals were dissatisfied with the selection, Buechlein praised it because of Ratzinger’s commitment to orthodox Catholic teaching.

In Indianapolis, Buechlein’s tenure has been marked by an influx of Hispanic immigrants that has breathed life into several withering Downtown parishes and attempts to cope with a shortage of priests. In some cases, he has consolidated parishes while holding off doing so in others. After several years of seeing the church mired in deficit spending, his administrative cutbacks and other actions have produced break-even budgets or slight surpluses for three consecutive years.

The most painful aspect of the job, Buechlein has said repeatedly, has been the clergy sexual abuse crisis, and his response to it locally has been controversial.

The archdiocese has acknowledged the existence of past abuse and offered to pay for victims’ therapy. It also has complied with new guidelines intended to prevent abuse.

But in court, where more than a dozen sexual abuse lawsuits against the archdiocese remain, the archbishop’s legal representatives have argued that victims’ cases should not be heard because the statute of limitations has expired, producing sharp criticism from victims’ groups. To date, the archdiocese has yet to agree to a single case settlement beyond therapy and medical expense payments.

As for his health, Buechlein said as recently as September that he was in “reasonably” good health. He had begun exercising more and cutting back on sweets, losing more than 20 pounds. At that time, he said he intended to continue in office until age 75, when church law requires bishops to submit a letter of resignation to the pope. The pope can accept or reject such resignations.

For now, Buechlein is not talking about his illness, declining interviews through Otolski, who describes the typically low-key Benedictine monk as being in “good spirits.”

“Kind of his nature is to be hopeful,” Otolski said. “It is not really part of his nature to have something like this kind of sidetrack him or send him for a loop.”