An experienced bishop who leads about 650,000 practicing Catholics in suburban Chicago was named Thursday as the new Catholic archbishop for Western Washington.
At 58, the Most Rev. J. Peter Sartain becomes the youngest archbishop in the United States.
Sartain said he will bring a pastoral focus to his work and continue the healing process for victims of clergy sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Seattle.
But first, Sartain said he needs to get to know Western Washington and its people. He last visited Seattle 18 years ago for a salmon-fishing trip with friends.
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He pledged to listen before making any decisions. “I try to listen to all points of view as best I can,” Sartain said at a news conference Thursday.
Pope Benedict XVI appointed Sartain as the new archbishop for Western Washington, succeeding Archbishop Alex J. Brunett, 76, who is retiring.
Sartain has led the Diocese of Joliet, which is similar in numerical size to the Archdiocese of Seattle. There are about 600,000 practicing Catholics in Western Washington, forming the region’s largest religious group.
The new archbishop said he brings a pastoral focus to his work, visiting parishes and getting to know the people he serves.
That includes keeping a list of their prayer requests and praying for their needs.
He has three baskets filled with requests at his chapel in Joliet.
“I have a prayer list and I invite people to send me their prayer intentions,” Sartain said. “It’s another way I can express my love for them.”
Sartain said he learned of his new assignment on Sept. 7, in a phone call from Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the pope’s representative to the United States.
“It was a complete surprise to me,” Sartain said.
The Rev. Tuan Nguyen, of Tacoma, was among a group of priests that met with Sartain on Thursday. He said he was impressed and pleased with the new archbishop.
Nguyen, who is pastor for a cluster of six parishes in Tacoma, said he asked for help developing inner-city Catholic schools in Tacoma, and Sartain said he would work with him. The priest also invited the archbishop to visit Nguyen’s parishes in Tacoma, and Sartain said he would love to.
Nguyen believes from what he heard, Sartain will continue policies providing a safe environment for children and work collaboratively with others. He showed he was willing to listen and care.
“Everyone’s so excited,” Nguyen said. “He’s a very spiritual person. He’s the perfect leader for us.”
Catholicism chronicler Rocco Palmo, who writes the blog Whispers in the Loggia, said Sartain’s appointment to Seattle was a “tremendous surprise,” given that he was expected by some to succeed Chicago Cardinal Francis George when he reaches the age of retirement in 2012.
Palmo praised Sartain for having a “whip-smart mind” and “widely acclaimed human touch.”
Brunett submitted his resignation in January 2009 upon turning 75, as required by church law. The archdiocese announced Wednesday that the pope had accepted Brunett’s resignation and his successor would be announced Thursday morning.
Given he’s 17 years from retirement, Sartain could be leading the Seattle archdiocese for many years to come – unless he’s moved to an even larger archdiocese and elevated to cardinal.
Brunett, who has led the Seattle archdiocese since 1997, introduced Sartain to reporters Thursday.
Sartain said dealing with the clergy sexual abuse scandal will be one of his challenges in Western Washington.
The Seattle archdiocese has paid about $42 million in settlements, counseling and attorney’s fees to about 300 victims over the past 23 years, with about 70 percent of the money paid by insurance companies.
On Thursday, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) criticized Sartain for ordaining a priest last year who Catholic officials allegedly caught with pornography on his computer a few months earlier. In January, Sartain removed the priest as parochial vicar at a parish after a boy accused the priest of sexually abusing him. The priest pleaded guilty to sexual abuse and was sentenced this month to four years in prison.
Sartain said Thursday he couldn’t comment on the case.
“What I have tried to do and will continue to try to do is to be very vigilant in the preparation of our priests and likewise very open to the suffering of victims, whether they’re recent or many, many years ago,” he said. “I will be available to meet with victims and their families because that’s, I think, a very important, direct part of the process of healing that needs to take place.”
The priest, who speaks both English and Spanish, said he will discover other challenges in time.
“When the church goes about its work of being the church everywhere, there are lots of challenges and lots of opportunities,” Sartain said. “I will get to know what those are as well and will pay attention to all of them.”
Sartain said he expects to be installed within the next two months.
Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647 firstname.lastname@example.org