- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Pope Benedict XVI, increasingly under fire in the Catholic Church’s sex-abuse scandal, has appointed Archbishop Jose Gomez to replace Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, putting Archbishop Gomez in line to become the nation’s first Hispanic cardinal.

When he takes over America’s largest Catholic archdiocese next year, Archbishop Gomez also will become the first U.S. bishop to be a member of Opus Dei, the traditional-leaning movement for which Pope John Paul II took personal oversight. He also will replace one of the American churchmen hardest hit by the sex-abuse scandal.

Archbishop Gomez, 58, appeared at the downtown Los Angeles cathedral Tuesday, taking most questions in Spanish and vowing to make comprehensive immigration reform a priority.

He noted the first four bishops of the Los Angeles territory were Hispanic, and his appointment is a return to the church’s roots.

“It’s one of the great Catholic communities in the world,” he said. “Los Angeles, like no other city in the world, has the global face of the Catholic Church.”

Archbishop Gomez, who was born in Monterrey, Mexico, will take over the 5-million-member archdiocese when Cardinal Mahony reaches the expected retirement age of 75 in February 2011. He was installed as the archbishop of San Antonio In 2005 and previously served as an auxiliary bishop in Denver.

“The people of San Antonio have a special goodness and grace that will always keep them close to me in my heart,” Archbishop Gomez said in a statement. “But the life of a priest or bishop is not his own. The only real home we have is in the love of our people. And that love is the same everywhere people believe in Jesus Christ and come together as a faithful Catholic community.”

Archbishop Gomez is the nation’s only Hispanic archbishop and likely will become the first U.S. Hispanic cardinal. Customarily, the head of the Los Angeles Archdiocese is a member of the College of Cardinals, the body of clergy who elect the pope. When Cardinal Mahony turns 80 in six years, he no longer will have voting rights in the college, and Archbishop Gomez likely would be appointed then.

For the next year, though, Archbishop Gomez’s formal title will be coadjutor archbishop of Los Angeles.

According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Hispanics make up more than 35 percent of America’s Catholics and 70 percent of the Los Angeles Archdiocese. But while the Hispanic sheep are many, the shepherds are few — Hispanic bishops make up 9 percent of all Catholic bishops in the United States. The bishops conference points to 40 Hispanic bishops ordained in the United States, but only 28 are active.

Cardinal Mahony, who will have served Los Angeles for 25 years upon his retirement, welcomed Archbishop Gomez with “enthusiasm and personal excitement.” In a statement Tuesday, he said his diocese deserved to have a Hispanic as its next leader and called Archbishop Gomez a “gift.”

“Over the years he has been a most effective leader working with priests serving the Spanish-speaking communities across the country, and his leadership in proclaiming the dignity and rights of our immigrant peoples has helped motivate many people to advocate for our immigrants,” Cardinal Mahony said.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, a favorite of tradition-minded Catholics and the man who installed Jose Gomez as a bishop, also released a statement congratulating Archbishop Gomez and saying he is the “perfect choice” to lead the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

“He played a very big role in making our Hispanic ministry one of the best in the country, but his impact and friendships went well beyond the Hispanic community,” Archbishop Chaput said. “He has a great gift for bringing people together from very different backgrounds.”

Archbishop Gomez is the first priest of Opus Dei, a mostly lay organization, to become a U.S. bishop and one of 22 Opus Dei priests worldwide to reach the episcopate. If and when he is named a cardinal, he would be one of three Opus Dei cardinals in the world. The reaction from Opus Dei’s U.S. headquarters in New York was muted, however.

“Jose Gomez is an incredibly gracious person, someone who’s been well respected and well liked everywhere he’s gone,” spokesman Brian Finnerty said. “Will some of that rub off on Opus Dei when he becomes archbishop of Los Angeles? Maybe, but that’s not the point.”

He added, “It’s Jose Gomez being named an archbishop and not Opus Dei being named an archbishop. He’s been named because of his great work in Denver and San Antonio, and I expect the same excellent work in Los Angeles.”

In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI named Archbishop Gomez as a consultant to the Pontifical Commission of Latin America. He also has been cited by Time and CNN as one of the nation’s most influential Hispanics.

Archbishop Gomez will be welcomed formally at a Mass of reception in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels on May 26.

Cardinal Mahony is widely viewed as one of the most liberal U.S. prelates — in 2006, he threatened in a letter to President George W. Bush to defy a pending border-security bill that he said would require the church “to stop every person coming to Holy Communion and first ask them to produce proof of legal residence.”

Cardinal Mahony acknowledged that Archbishop Gomez was ordained as an Opus Dei priest and people thus might expect the two to bump heads, but he said, “[T]hese labels of ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ are really unhelpful in the life of the church.”

Cardinal Mahony also was hit by claims that he covered up sex-abuse cases during his tenure and shuffled predator priests from parish to parish. Most notoriously, when he was bishop of Stockton, Calif., Cardinal Mahony shuffled the Rev. Oliver O’Grady around for five years, during which the priest was sexually assaulting boys — a case that became the subject of the acclaimed documentary film “Deliver Us From Evil.” In 2007, the church agreed to pay more than 500 sex-abuse victims $660 million in settlement money.

Julia Duin contributed to this article, which was based in part on wire service reports.

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