Tuesday, January 27, 2009

75 = Staying On

Truth be told, the recent stream of 75th birthdays on the US bench has gotten religion scribes around the country in something of a tizz, expecting imminent transitions in their backyards.

Lest anyone share this this school of thought: just breathe -- remember, the process is run by Italians... not the world's most expedient people....

The way things normally run, an ordinary submitting his mandatory retirement letter likely won't see a successor for at least a year, usually more like 18 months, and sometimes even longer.

As of this writing, 15 Stateside prelates (12 of them diocesan bishops) are serving past 75, with another four to join the queue by early March. And the latest of the group already-turned -- Archbishop Alex Brunett of Seattle -- is making no secret of his desire, and expectation, to stick around for a while yet.

Head of the 900,000-member Northwest church since 1997, Brunett marked the milestone last week.
“If I had my choice, I’d like to stay for a little bit longer – as long as I’m healthy and can do the job and I’m being effective,” Brunett said in an interview last week.

Local priests interviewed by The [Tacoma] News Tribune seemed to agree their leader has done his job well.

The Rev. Michael McDermott, pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Tacoma, said Brunett is “very positive and very hopeful.”

McDermott has experience to draw from; he was an administrator under Brunett’s two predecessors, Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen and the late Archbishop Thomas Murphy.

“At heart he is a pastor,” McDermott said of Brunett. “He cares about people.”...

Brunett has stepped up social services to people in need, doubling the number of residents in low-income housing.

Under his leadership, two new high schools are being launched this fall, including Pope John Paul II High School in Lacey. Numerous parish buildings have gone up. Earlier this month, Brunett blessed new offices and the renovated school and gymnasium at St. Michael Catholic Church in Olympia.

And he has led the archdiocese through the crisis of sex abuse claims against priests without having to file for bankruptcy, as the dioceses in Spokane and Portland did.

From 1987 to 2007, the Seattle archdiocese paid $31 million for settlements, counseling and attorneys fees for about 250 sex abuse victims. That total includes $4 million in 2007 alone.

Brunett called the abuse “a terrible thing.”

“I have been always concerned about the victims first of all, as well as the priests who are sometimes falsely accused.” he said.

But a member and former director of the Seattle chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests is critical of how Brunett has dealt with victims of priest sex abuse.

“I think he’s done a terrible job,” said Jim Biteman of Renton, a victim who said he has an ongoing lawsuit against the archdiocese. “There was very little sympathy toward the victims and the survivors. There’s been very little transparency.”

From 1950 to 2008, 54 priests working in the archdiocese were accused of sex abuse. All but one accusation dates prior to 1984.

Brunett said he would like to resolve the remaining claims within the next two years.

Two cases remain involving parish priests still on leave. In addition, 12 members of the Congregation of Christian Brothers religious order were accused of abuse. Those accusations, made in lawsuits, center on the Christian Brothers’ Briscoe Memorial School for Boys, a boarding school the brothers operated in Kent until the early 1970s.

All but one of the alleged abuses occurred before Brunett became archbishop, but he said he’s accepted that “I’m the heir of that past history.”

“I tried to clean it up,” Brunett said. “And now I think we have one of the strongest programs in the United States, maybe in the world.”

When he retires, Brunett said he will leave the archdiocese bigger, stronger and with a better foundation than when he came. It’s his responsibility to be the spiritual leader for the people of the archdiocese.

“I have to be,” Brunett said. “That’s my job – to motivate people and to encourage them. I love to do that.”

He said he remains invigorated by his job. While his office and home are near St. James Cathedral on Seattle’s First Hill, Brunett travels throughout the 28,000-square-mile archdiocese for Masses, confirmations and parish anniversaries. He’s gone every weekend, driving his blue 2006 Jeep Grand Cherokee.

“Thank God I had a Jeep for this Christmas season,” Brunett said. “I could go anywhere.”...

His pastoral care, even for a stranger, came through a couple of years ago when Brunett was eating at a Seattle restaurant.

A waiter noticed him and asked if the archbishop would hear his confession. The waiter, who told Brunett he had drifted from his faith, cleared out a back room. Brunett heard the man confess his sin.

For his 75th birthday, Brunett not only wrote a letter of resignation. He received 1,500 birthday cards from priests, members of religious orders and parishioners.

School children wrote on one drawing, “You are our shepherd.”

“I took one day off and I read them all,” Brunett said.

He said will respond to every card with a personal letter.

“I answer every letter I get,” Brunett said. “I’ve always done that.”

McDermott said he expects Brunett will be allowed to continue to serve for about three more years.

“That seems to be the pattern,” McDermott said. “I think he would be allowed to stay. I don’t see any reason why he wouldn’t be.”

That also appears to be the view of Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the pope’s representative to the United States.

At the U.S. bishops’ conference in November in Washington, D.C., Sambi said he expected Brunett and Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, who turns 75 in March, would receive letters saying they will continue to serve, Brunett said.

“He kind of looked at me from head to toe,” Brunett recalled. Then Sambi said, “‘You look pretty healthy. I think you’ll probably get a letter saying that you can stay on for a while.’”

Brunett said he’s open to whatever the Vatican decides.

“It’s out of his hands,” McDermott said. “You just have to wait and see.”
At the top of the nation's over-75 docket is, of course, New York, where Cardinal Edward Egan marked the milestone in April 2007.

Across the Pond, meanwhile, a successor to Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor of Westminster is expected to be named sometime in March, possibly to be installed before Easter.

Head of the primatial see of England and Wales, the UK cardinal reached the retirement age in August 2007 and met with Pope Benedict on his succession last month.

And come Friday, the Vatican figure responsible for overseeing the appointment process and recommending choices to the pontiff -- the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re -- turns 75, himself. The well-regarded, über-efficient former Sostituto of the Secretariat of State has served in the all-powerful post since 16 September 2000, when Cardinal Lucas Moreira Neves OP retired from the post... on his 75th birthday.

PHOTO: Peter Haley/Tacoma News-Tribune