Archbishop Charles Chaput, 66, of Denver takes over an archdiocese of nearly 1.5 million Catholics that's been rocked by school closings, a dwindling supply of priests and nuns, and two grand jury reports that accuse the church of hiding sex-abuse complaints for decades.
Outgoing Archbishop Justin Rigali, a longtime Vatican official who was expected to land a job in Rome, will instead retire to Tennessee after eight turbulent years leading the archdiocese. The grand jury excoriated Rigali and his predecessor, Anthony Bevilacqua, finding they protected church interests over those of victims.
A Philadelphia monsignor is fighting unprecedented child-endangerment charges for allegedly transferring problem priests to new parishes without warning, while three priest co-defendants in the case are charged with rape.
"I do not know why the Holy Father sent me here," said Chaput (pronounced chap-YEW'), who has spent his career in the western United States. "(But) no person will work harder to try to help persons who have been hurt by the sins of the past."
Critics of his tenure in Colorado, though, complain that he fought hard to block efforts to extend the time that child sex-abuse victims have to file suit. Chaput said Tuesday that he did so only so that the church would be treated no differently under the law than anyone else.
"He has a lot of healing to do, and I hope that would be his focus. And for a long time, that should be his primary, if not sole focus," said Nicholas Cafardi, a Duquesne University law professor who once served as counsel to the Pittsburgh archdiocese.
And in a stunning break this spring, Ana Maria Cantazaro, the chairwoman of Rigali's internal investigative panel on priest abuse, published an essay saying Rigali and his bishops "failed miserably at being open and transparent" about complaints.
At a joint news conference on Tuesday, Chaput called Rigali "one of the great churchmen of my lifetime."
Rigali, 76, apologized for any shortcomings.
"If I have offended anyone in any way, I am deeply sorry," Rigali said. "I apologize for any weaknesses on my part in representing Christ and the church."
In Philadelphia, Rigali has overseen the closing of dozens of Catholic schools because of declining enrollment, but he also spearheaded a $200 million capital campaign, the construction of two suburban high schools and a church for a burgeoning immigrant Hispanic community.
Pope Benedict XVI accepted Rigali's resignation more than a year after it was tendered, as required, at age 75. The brief Vatican announcement attributed the move to Rigali's age.
Rigali, a former archbishop of St. Louis, remains a Cardinal and can vote in the conclave to elect a new pope until his 80th birthday.
Chaput is known as an outspoken bishop who has criticized Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, speaks out against government playing too big a role in health care and opposes gay marriage and stem-cell research.
In 2010, he defended a decision by a Catholic school in Colorado not to re-enroll two children of a lesbian couple. Chaput said the parents of Catholic school students are expected to agree with church beliefs, including those forbidding sex between anyone other than married, heterosexual couples.
Chaput was one of the bishops Benedict chose in 2009 to investigate the Legionaries of Christ, the disgraced religious order that in recent years confirmed that its late founder fathered three children and sexually abused young seminarians. The pope also turned to Chaput in another sensitive case: an inquiry into Australian Bishop William Morris of the Toowoomba diocese, whom Benedict removed in May partly because the bishop indicated he would ordain women and marry men if church rules allowed the practice.
Between 2005 and 2008, the archdiocese of Denver settled 43 sex abuse allegations against priests for a total of $8.2 million. Chaput has publicly apologized to all the victims, saying the church was "mortified and embarrassed."
"It's obvious Rome is asking Archbishop Chaput to handle several very tough and sensitive jobs," said Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops who is friendly with Chaput. "He was regarded in Rome already as a very able and reliable man who could be counted on to do a good honest job and do it well.
Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, called Chaput's apology to Denver abuse victims "lofty words" that didn't jibe with his opposition to the 2006 proposal to extend the statute of limitations for sex offenders.
Chaput pushed sex abuse victims to settle their claims, ensuring little information was released about what church officials new about the allegations.
"His track record on dealing with abuse is deplorable," Blaine said.
Archbishop of Los Angeles Jose Gomez, who was Chaput's auxiliary bishop in Denver, called the incoming Philadelphia archbishop "a man of profound faith and extraordinary pastoral sensitivity."
"Archbishop Chaput worked with missionary zeal - even making use of social media - to spread the Good News of Christ's love to all corners of his archdiocese," Gomez said in a statement.