It won't be Rigali, Part 2

Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput is known for his hands-on style and outspokenness.
Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput is known for his hands-on style and outspokenness. (Associated Press)
Posted: July 19, 2011

Update: The Vatican officially announced this morning that Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput has been named the new archbishop of Philadelphia.

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ON THE IDEOLOGICAL surface, perhaps, there may not seem to be much difference between Philadelphia's outgoing Catholic leader, Cardinal Justin Rigali, and the man who will replace him, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput. Both leaders hold conservative views that are faithful to church teachings.

But whereas Rigali is low-key and discreet, Chaput is known as an outspoken crusader on issues he's impassioned about. He's media-savvy, weighing in publicly on everything from movies and violent video games to church-state issues.

One church watcher dubbed him a "cultural warrior."

"He has a pugnacious personality and he's not afraid to pick a fight with the mainstream culture when he thinks that they're wrong," said Michael Sean Winters, who writes the blog "Distinctly Catholic" for the National Catholic Reporter. "He does it in a way that he thinks advances the church's message."

"Buckle up," Winters added. "You're in for a ride."

Chaput, 66, is expected to be named Rigali's successor this morning. Rigali, 76, has led the Philadelphia Archdiocese since taking over for Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua in 2003. His tenure was tarnished after a February grand-jury report found that the Archdiocese had covered for predatory priests for decades.

Rocco Palmo, author of the Catholic-oriented blog "Whispers in the Loggia," said Chaput is the ideal candidate to right past wrongs. The Catholic Church wants "a very aggressive cleanup, healing for the victims, and a clean slate. Here come the brooms," said Palmo, of Philadelphia.

One example of how Chaput handles such allegations: In April 2010, a man came to the Denver Archdiocese alleging he'd been abused by a priest in the 1970s. Within a week, the Archdiocese had suspended the priest and reported him to law enforcement although the statute of limitations prevented any action against him.

Palmo, who has known Chaput for decades and calls him "fearless" and "principled," said it was a mistake to simply caricature the archbishop as a conservative pundit. Chaput, a former parish priest, is hands-on, accessible and interested in what the laity has to say, Palmo said.

"It's going to be a completely different way of doing business here," he said. "It's essentially going to be Philadelphia Catholicism Version 3.0."

Chaput, a member of the Capuchin order of Franciscan priests, is the second American Indian bishop of the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. and the first American Indian archbishop. The Archdiocese of Denver, which Chaput led since 1997, has 550,000 parishioners, about one-third the number in Philadelphia's five-county Archdiocese.

Chaput faces incredible challenges in Philadelphia, church watchers say. Besides the sex-abuse scandal, he will have to tackle a major restructuring of the church, closing certain parishes while restoring morale among the clergy.

"Every bishop in the country was watching this appointment, and even those that don't agree with his stances . . . said 'we're praying for him,' " Palmo said.

Susan Matthews, local writer and publisher of Catholics4change.com, said she was excited that there was an opportunity to have "meaningful conversation" with the Archdiocese.

"From what I've read and been told, Chaput is a very hands-on leader," said Matthews, a former editor with the Catholic Standard and Times. "He's an administrator who takes complete responsibility, and it's not going to be, 'Oh, the people under me handled that.' That's been Rigali's style."

What will be of concern to her readers, she said, is Chaput's position that the statute of limitations should remain on sex-abuse cases. One of the February grand-jury recommendations was to abolish the statute of limitations for all criminal sexual offenses against minors.

When similar legislation to eliminate the statute came up in Colorado in 2006, Chaput was outspoken in his opposition, hiring lobbyists to fight the bill, said Gwyn Green, a Colorado state representative who supported the bill.

"In my opinion, he plays dirty. He plays hardball," Green said. "He personally libeled me and accused me of being anti-Catholic and I was a Catholic all my life."

Chaput, Winters said, isn't afraid of controversy. Last year, one of his Archdiocese's schools said that two children of lesbian parents could no longer attend there. Chaput supported the decision in his column in the Denver Catholic Register.

"Our schools are meant to be 'partners in faith' with parents," he wrote. "If parents don't respect the beliefs of the Church, or live in a manner that openly rejects those beliefs, then partnering with those parents becomes very difficult, if not impossible."

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