Bishop Wants to Put Church 'In Order'
Archbishop Sheehan, a Former Dallas-Area Priest, Steps into Troubled Phoenix Diocese

By Jeffrey Weiss
The Dallas Morning News [Dallas TX]
June 21, 2003

The big event of Michael Sheehan's week was supposed to be the celebration of his 10th anniversary as head of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sante Fe, N.M.

Instead, the former Dallas-area priest was thrust into a national church scandal when he was appointed temporary head of the Phoenix diocese.

On Wednesday, Phoenix Bishop Thomas O'Brien resigned after being charged with leaving the scene of a fatal hit-and-run accident. Two weeks earlier, the bishop made a deal with prosecutors, admitting he shielded priests accused of sexual abuse in exchange for immunity from obstruction of justice charges.

Archbishop Sheehan - who was ordained a priest in 1964 in what was then the Dallas-Fort Worth diocese - knows how to take charge of a troubled diocese. In Santa Fe, he replaced a bishop who resigned amid allegations that he had sexual relationships with women. And scores of pedophilia-related lawsuits had been filed against priests in the diocese.

He settled about 200 lawsuits, removed more than 20 priests and created a zero-tolerance policy on sex abuse long before the U.S. bishops approved a national standard.

On Tuesday, in honor of his 10th anniversary, the Albuquerque Journal ran a laudatory article and editorial calling him a "symbol for hope and healing."

His reputation was sterling enough that the Vatican took the unusual step of giving him two dioceses to run until a new bishop is named for Phoenix.

"I want to put the household of faith in order," he said in a written statement Wednesday. "But I cannot do it alone, nor can I do it overnight."

Still, Archbishop Sheehan's record includes some questionable calls regarding abusive priests. In 1977, he was the seminary head who allowed the now-notorious Rudy Kos to enroll. And as bishop of Lubbock in the 1980s, he allowed one accused priest to keep working in remote parishes for years - which was one reason the diocese later had to settle lawsuits.

The archbishop's office did not respond to requests for an interview for this article.

Archbishop Sheehan, who turned 64 this month, was born in Kansas and raised in Texarkana, Texas. He studied for the priesthood in San Antonio. His first assignment was as an associate pastor in Tyler. After working from 1971 to 1976 in Washington for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, he became rector at Holy Trinity Seminary at the University of Dallas. He later served as pastor of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Grand Prairie.

A year after he took charge at Holy Trinity, a previously rejected seminary candidate named Rudolph Kos reapplied and was accepted. In 1997, several men who then-Father Kos sexually abused as boys sued the Dallas diocese. During that trial, then-Bishop Sheehan acknowledged that he hadn't read the records of Mr. Kos' marriage annulment before letting him into the seminary. He testified that he didn't think he had a legal right to read the records, which included allegations that Mr. Kos had unspecified problems, and that he saw nothing in Mr. Kos during his seminary days that would indicate he was a child abuser.

The trial resulted in the largest clergy-abuse verdict in history, nearly $120 million (reduced in post-trial negotiations to about $31 million).

Father Sheehan became the first bishop of the new diocese of Lubbock in 1983. He was named archbishop of Santa Fe in 1993.

His successes in Santa Fe surely led to his new assignment, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America. "He's got a good track record on this, and that's probably why the Vatican went for him."

Fellow bishops attending their annual meeting in St. Louis this week echoed that assessment.

"He's extremely well-respected among bishops. He's known as a man who doesn't get flustered or upset," said Bishop James Griffin of Columbus, Ohio.

Staff Writer Susan Hogan/Albach in St. Louis contributed to this report.


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