Olmsted Bringing Changes to Diocese
Liberals Concerned, Conservatives Cheer

By Michael Clancy
The Arizona Republic [Phoenix AZ]
May 3, 2004

A tough stand on abortion, a crackdown on priests who signed a gay rights document and other recent decisions by Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted have raised concerns among liberal Catholics who fear a conservative shift in the diocese.

But the same decisions are drawing praise from conservatives in the church.

"This bishop has a one-dimensional focus," said Rep. Robert Meza, a Catholic and a Democrat who represents part of Phoenix in the Legislature. "The church is too dogmatic."

Other Catholics look at the same actions and find hope.

"Positive changes in the diocese are happening swiftly," said George Garbel, 60, of Phoenix, who attends St. Joan of Arc Church. "Bishop Olmsted continues to emphasize the true teaching of the church."

Olmsted, in personality, policy and discipline, represents a strong contrast with his predecessor, Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien. The changes he brings come at the end of a tumultuous year for Valley Catholics, who saw O'Brien come under fire in a sex abuse scandal that has rocked the church nationally and his retirement after a hit-and-run accident last summer.

Olmsted declined a request for an interview for this article. In an e-mail, he said his vision of the diocese is rooted in Pope John Paul II's statement, "Ecclesia in America."

"The most important thing is to encounter the living Jesus Christ and to let Him lead us along the paths of conversion, communion and solidarity," Olmsted wrote.

What that could mean in terms of practical, day-to-day issues has church liberals concerned.

The debate over the direction and influence of the church is playing out nationally as well.

Sen. John Kerry's abortion-rights position, the U.S. bishops' position on the Iraq war and priests organizing against the church's celibacy rule all have made headlines in recent months.

At home, Olmsted is making his own headlines.

Last week, a private letter surfaced in which he called for nine priests to remove their names from the Phoenix Declaration, a document affirming gay rights that they signed last year.

Critics also point to Olmsted's emphasis on battling abortion in his first month on the job. The bishop took part in several prayer gatherings and led the largest protest at Planned Parenthood in years on Good Friday this year.

They also look at his reinstatement of the old Latin Mass and his suspension last week of a priest pending an investigation of allegations that he violated the rules of celebrating the Mass by allowing a non-Catholic clergyman to take part.

But even Olmsted's critics have found common ground with him. They praise his signing of an interfaith statement calling for a reformed immigration policy, his meeting with several survivors of sexual abuse and his plans to replace the local church hierarchy.

But they also are concerned by what they see as the bishop's inaction on a variety of matters: sexual-abuse lawsuits, Hispanic ministry and ecumenical affairs.

"I sense a long-term commitment to healing, but he still needs to accept public accountability," said Paul Pfaffenberger, head of the local chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "The more autocratic he is, the less responsive and collegial he will be."

"Clearly, he is a more conservative bishop," said the Rev. Jan Flaaten, a Lutheran clergyman who leads the Arizona Ecumenical Council. "He definitely represents a change in direction. Some people are cheering and others are genuinely lamenting" both in the Catholic Church and in the ecumenical community.

One of those who is cheering is John Jakubczyk, an attorney and president of Arizona Right to Life.

"I have a tremendous sense that we have been blessed with a very holy man," he said. "He takes his role very seriously, to bring souls closer to Jesus Christ."

"I think he will try to bring clarity to the idea of conscience, and he will open doors to let people see what the church teaches."

Father Charles Goraieb, pastor of St. Henry's Catholic Church in Buckeye, said that regardless which side of the aisle a Catholic sits on, the bishop's actions are "sincere, clear and authentic."

"The pope has tremendous confidence in the power of the truth to convert humanity," he said.

"Bishop Olmsted is in that mold. He has brought great daylight to the diocese."


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