|By Olivier Uyttebrouck, Albuquerque Journal, N.M.|
|McClatchy-Tribune Information Services|
The leaderless archdiocese had been rocked by allegations of clerical sexual abuse.
Just three weeks earlier, the popular Archbishop Robert F. Sanchez had resigned after five women alleged he had sexually molested them when they were teenagers. New Mexicans were shocked to hear several women describe those abuses on "60 Minutes,"
Sanchez was one of at least 14 priests accused of sexual abuse at the time Sheehan arrived and lawsuits were beginning to pile up. Sheehan ultimately dismissed an estimated 20 priests as a result of the scandal.
"I want to put the household of faith in order," Sheehan said following a flight from
Sheehan celebrated his 75th birthday last week and is required to submit a letter of resignation to
Catholics interviewed last week commend Sheehan for his handling of the priest abuse scandal and his dedication to the church.
"Considering all the things in the past -- not his past but other archbishops' -- he has regained a lot of faith from a lot of parishioners," said
Sheehan has for years been a leading voice in
In recent years, he has championed a
This year, Sheehan criticized the Obama administration for provisions in the Affordable Care Act requiring religious employers to cover contraceptive services in their insurance plans.
Sheehan has also shown himself willing to take actions that anger parishioners.
In January, he informed Dominican priests to leave Aquinas Newman Center at the
Several parishioners said the move had left them with a bitter taste for their longtime archbishop.
"I like (Sheehan), but I'm confused by him at the moment," said
Sheehan said he wants UNM to produce more vocations, or men who aspire to become priests, and named the archdiocese's director of vocations as Newman Center's pastor.
"I've always felt kind of cheated because I became a priest in 1964 to be a parish priest," he said in a recent interview, "and I didn't have much time as a parish priest."
Sheehan said he has no qualms about stepping down as archbishop.
"I've been a bishop a long time, and I'll be glad to hand it on to someone else," he said.
Sexual abuse crisis
"When (Sheehan) came in, I think he probably had some sense what the local church was going through," Garner said. "I also think that until he was in that role of leadership, he didn't realize how complex it was."
The archdiocese also faced a "very real" threat of bankruptcy, he said.
"It was a sad moment in our history," said Monsignor
Sheehan acted resolutely to dismiss priests who faced credible allegations of sexual abuse, Olona said.
"I think he did it with honesty and compassion, but with firmness," he said. "His style is to deal with what is in front of him and deal with it the best he can."
Three weeks after his arrival, Sheehan set up a nine-member review board to investigate all allegations of sexual abuse by clergy.
He also imposed a zero-tolerance policy that called for removing priests responsible for sexual abuse. Sheehan initiated a healing process that continues today, Olona said.
Scholars of the Roman Catholic church said at the time that it was rare for an administrator to be appointed directly from
The crisis in
Also that year, the
But in 1993, Sheehan had few examples to follow as he led the archdiocese, Garner said.
"From a historical perspective, you have to remember that this local church, the
"I think because there were very few paradigms -- models how to deal with this -- I think (Sheehan) did an extraordinary job."
Many trace the severity of the crisis to a
Sheehan acknowledges that he was handed a tough job in
"I promised to be obedient, and whatever they have asked me to do, I've tried to do it," Sheehan said. "I have felt the presence of God in the work that I've had to do."
Sheehan said he tells seminarians "that if you give yourself to the Lord the best you can, he will take care of you and all the little worries that you have."
Sheehan's "little worries" included about 200 lawsuits brought against the archdiocese since the 1990s, he estimated.
Most of the lawsuits were settled with the church and its insurers in the mid-1990s for sums that were never disclosed publicly but were estimated to be in the tens of millions of dollars.
In his first year as archbishop, Sheehan personally apologized to 37 victims of clerical abuse and pledged to meet with all victims. The archdiocese reached settlements with 61 claimants the first year and spent
"He never declined to meet with anybody who was willing to meet with him," said
The archdiocese also sold properties to pay for claims, including an 18-acre site near
Sheehan's successor will likely have to contend with lawsuits filed in recent years.
A total of 21 lawsuits have been filed against the archdiocese since 2012 by
Reynolds credited Sheehan with a "historic effort" to keep the archdiocese solvent throughout the lawsuits.
"He displayed a lot of basic management skills," Reynolds said. Throughout the process, Sheehan formed groups to advise him and sought candid opinions, with Sheehan making the final decision, he said.
"I remember giving my opinion in a few settings and basically being overruled," he said. "I never felt one twinge of discomfort about that. And as we went forward, they turned out to be good decisions."
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