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Santa Rosa Diocese gets successor to Bishop Walsh


Bishop Robert Vasa said Monday that his nomination as future head of Santa Rosa's Roman Catholic diocese came "out of the blue."

"It was an absolute shock to me," said Vasa, 59, a Nebraska native who has served as bishop of the Baker diocese in eastern Oregon since 2000.

Vasa, whose name is pronounced "Vasha," was introduced Monday as the successor to Bishop Daniel Walsh, 73, who said he will retire later this year.

Pope Benedict XVI made the appointment, placing Vasa in line to become the sixth bishop of Santa Rosa since the North Coast diocese was established in 1962.

"I am really delighted with the appointment," Walsh said at a press conference at the Santa Rosa chancery.

Walsh, who has headed the 160,000-member diocese since 2000, said he looks forward to a months-long transition period working with Vasa, who officially holds the title of coadjutor bishop.

Vasa will take up residence in the bishop's house in Santa Rosa on March 4 and will serve, as Walsh does, at St. Eugene Cathedral.

The joint tenure of a bishop and his replacement is intended to create a "continuum," Walsh said, "not a dramatic break."

Walsh and Vasa said they had seen one another at conferences but were not well acquainted.

"When you were born I was already into the seminary," Walsh remarked as the two bishops sat side-by-side in a conference room at the chancery.

"A generational shift," Vasa said.

But Vasa admitted that he is not young enough to comprehend the online social media, recalling that a Catholic youth once asked if he could "friend" the bishop on Facebook.

"You could but I have no idea what that means," Vasa replied.

Born and raised on a dairy farm near Lincoln, Neb., Vasa, whose grandparents were Czech immigrants, was ordained in the Lincoln diocese in 1976 and served there 24 years before he was named bishop in Baker.

That sprawling, sparsely populated diocese serves 60,000 to 70,000 Catholics in an area that covers more than 66,800 square miles, all of Oregon east of the Cascades.

The Santa Rosa diocese, which covers 42 parishes from Petaluma to the Oregon border, is about one-sixth as large as Vasa's territory.

Both dioceses have a significant Spanish-speaking population, with Masses in Spanish at many churches and a need for bilingual priests.

Hope Burke, the Baker diocese's chief financial officer, said her chancery was abuzz Monday with news of Vasa's impending departure.

Vasa is "an amazing man and even more amazing bishop," Burke said, describing him as "a down-to-earth, no-frills kind of guy."

"I think the people there (in Santa Rosa) will absolutely fall in love with him," she said.

Vasa got a decidedly different review from David Clohessy of St. Louis, director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

"Honestly, he's awful," Clohessy said. "This is like replacing Nixon with Agnew," he said referring to former President Richard Nixon and his vice president, Spiro Agnew, who resigned in 1973 amid criminal charges.

Clohessy's group faults Vasa for allegedly covering up a former eastern Oregon priest's attempted molestation of a 14-year-old girl in 2003 and for declining to participate in a 2008 church-sponsored nationwide audit of child safety practices.

Vasa's promotion "is still another clear sign that the Vatican does not value the well-being of children," Clohessy said.

Vasa disputed SNAP's contentions, saying that he met twice with the girl in 2003, urging her to report the alleged crime to police, and then immediately suspended the priest, a Columbian national who was subsequently arrested, convicted and deported.

Vasa said there is "no doubt in my mind" that his actions prompted the priest's punishment. The bishop said he told the priest's parish what had happened, but did not disclose it to the public, as SNAP maintains he should have done.

"I didn't see any need to broadcast it throughout the whole diocese," Vasa said.

Regarding the audit, Vasa said he declined to participate because it costs up to $10,000 and he knows his diocese will be faulted for failing to offer training to Catholic children on how to recognize sexual predators.

"My view is that parents need to be the first line of defense," Vasa said, noting that the Baker diocese offers training to parents and church volunteers.

"I am absolutely devoted and dedicated to the protection of children" he said.

The Santa Rosa diocese, roiled by the priest sex abuse scandal since 1994, has paid about $25 million to settle lawsuits brought by victims, a process that at one point helped bring it to the brink of bankruptcy.

Walsh arrived in 2000, a year after former Bishop G. Patrick Ziemann resigned in disgrace, admitting his sexual relationship with another priest. Ziemann's mismanagement also left the diocese $16 million in debt.

Walsh embarked on a fund-raising campaign that collected nearly $20 million and repaid $9.4 million that had been drained from parishes and schools during Ziemann's tenure.

Yvette Fallandy of Santa Rosa, a St. Eugene's parishioner, said that Walsh, by virtue of his "beatific long suffering and financial genius" led the diocese "from unthinkable disaster to where it can look forward to the future."

Walsh said Monday that the diocese's finances remain "very fragile" and he has recommended that Vasa launch another capital campaign in 2012 to help pay off diocese debts and support various programs.

Walsh, who endorsed in 2002 the U.S. bishops' policy of "zero tolerance" on sexual abuse by priests, approved the settlement of multiple victims' lawsuits against the diocese. Critics have faulted him for declining to name nine of 17 Santa Rosa diocese priests accused of sexual misconduct dating back to the 1970s, whom Walsh has said are dead or no longer serving in the diocese.

In 2006, Walsh removed a Sonoma priest who had admitted improprieties with three boys in a meeting with Walsh and other clergy. Ochoa fled, presumably to Mexico, after Walsh delayed reporting him to authorities. The bishop <NO1><NO>accepted diversion to a counseling program in lieu of facing misdemeanor charges for the delay.

Walsh said he had asked the Vatican to allow him to retire in 2008, when he was "exhausted." Rome declined at the time, but Walsh said his request remained on file.

In November, Walsh said he was advised by church officials in Washington, D.C. that he could request a coadjutor as a first step toward retirement. On Jan. 11, Walsh said he was advised that Vasa had been selected, and the decision would be announced on Monday.

Vasa said he did not apply for the Santa Rosa post and did not know there was a pending vacancy. Candidates for bishop are nominated by church officials around the country, he said.

"I suspect my name had been floated for other positions over the years," he said.

The search for a new bishop begins with the apostolic nuncio based in Washington, D.C., who is the Pope's personal representative in the United States. His office maintains a list of eligible priests and bishops, and provides a list of potential candidates to the Holy See in Rome.

The Congregation for Bishops, a group of about 35 cardinals and archbishops around the world, conducts more review and presents the pontiff with a list of candidates, typically three in number, Vasa said. The Pope makes the final decision.

Vasa said Walsh faced a "double challenge" of restoring the trust of Catholic clergy and lay people and rebuilding diocese finances.

"In my estimation he's doing an admirable job," Vasa said.

Catholic bishops are required to submit a letter of resignation by age 75, but they may continue to serve the church indefinitely.

Walsh said he is likely to leave his Santa Rosa post within a year and hopes to serve at a parish in San Francisco, where he was ordained as a priest in 1963.

Walsh served one year as an associate pastor in Redwood City, studied at Catholic University of America and taught at Serra High School in San Mateo in the 1960s.

In 1970, he took his first post as a diocese official and has served in San Francisco, Las Vegas and Santa Rosa ever since. "That's long enough for anybody," Walsh said.

Walsh has a large family and many clerical associates in San Francisco, Fallandy said. "He will be going home," she said.

A reception for Vasa is scheduled for March 6 at St. Eugene's.