The Vatican has named the Most Rev. J. Peter Sartain of Joliet, Ill., as the new Roman Catholic Archbishop of Seattle, spiritual leader to some 600,000 registered Catholics across Western Washington.

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In his first news conference as the new Roman Catholic Archbishop of Seattle, the Most Rev. J. Peter Sartain memorized the names of everyone in the room, spoke briefly in decent Spanish, and characterized himself as a man who listens to many points of view before making decisions.

Considered politically moderate, he is deeply spiritual, down-to-earth and known for his ability to inspire young men to study for the priesthood.

Sartain, 58, a native of Memphis, has been bishop of the Joliet Diocese in Illinois for the past four years.

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Known as brilliant yet very approachable, he becomes the spiritual leader to Catholics across Western Washington, succeeding Archbishop Alex Brunett, who is retiring after 13 years at age 76.

His appointment was announced in Rome early Thursday. With it, Sartain becomes the youngest archbishop in the United States. At Thursday’s news conference at the Seattle Archdiocese offices, Sartain said he learned of his appointment to Seattle only last week — and has been praying about it ever since.

“I consider it a privilege to follow in Archbishop Brunett’s footsteps,” he said, saying he has much to learn about the Archdiocese’s history, its faith, its growth and “its heroes and its heroines.”

He’s visited Seattle only twice, he added, and the last time was 18 years ago — to go salmon fishing.

“I have a great deal to learn … I need to get to know you.”

Describing his leadership style, Sartain said: “I try to listen as best I can to all points of view,” before making a decision. “Then I do my best to submit that to prayer.”

Sartain said he believed Catholics can work collaboratively with those who disagree on moral issues such as abortion.

Such differences, he said, don’t preclude “peaceful and fruitful dialogue if we’re all seeking the possibility of praising God and wanting to live as good people.”

In Joliet, diocesan spokesman Doug Delaney said Sartain will be greatly missed.

“Obviously, he’s a brilliant man, he has lots of degrees,” Delaney said. “But he could talk to any group. I saw him talk to kids and he could communicate at their level. He spoke with senior citizens who might have been questioning how much longer they would be here, and he always seemed to have the right words and thoughts and an understanding of people’s feelings.”

Delaney also said Sartain never forgets a name. Meet him once, Delaney said, and he’ll remember you forever. “You’d be amazed.”

Sartain is not only compassionate, Delaney said, he’s a great communicator and “very Catholic.”

“Our loss is your gain.”

Sartain’s background

Sartain (pronounced SAR-ton) was born in Memphis in 1952, one of six children.

He earned bachelor’s degrees from St. Meinrad College in Indiana and the Pontifical University of St. Thomas in Rome, and an advanced degree in sacred theology from the Pontifical Athenaeum San Anselmo in Rome.

In 1978, he was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Memphis and in 2000 was appointed bishop of the Diocese of Little Rock, Ark.

He was named bishop of the Joliet diocese, which has about 650,000 Catholics, in 2006. At the time, the Chicago Tribune said his “humor, warmth and honesty” had become legendary among parishioners.

Rocco Palmo of Philadelphia, who operates a website on Catholic politics called Whispers in the Loggia, said Sartain learned Spanish to communicate with Hispanic Catholics in Little Rock and helped bring them together with non-Hispanic Catholics in that diocese.

Sartain is also credited with having helped bring young men into the priesthood — a particular need for the church today — doubling the number of seminarians while in Little Rock, according to Palmo.

Palmo said Sartain is “straight down the middle when it comes politics and church politics.”

Like other recent appointments by Pope Benedict XVI, Palmo said, Sartain “is a uniter, not a divider.”

But in Joliet, Sartain’s tenure has been marred by cases of sexual abuse by priests.

“Sartain has done a terrible job on abuse and cover-up in Joliet,” a group called Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said in a statement Thursday. “His promotion shows, once again, that bishops who ignore or conceal child sex crimes keep getting rewarded, not punished.”

Last year, Sartain ordained a priest in the Joliet diocese who had been caught some months earlier with pornography on his computer. Earlier this year, after the priest was accused of sexually abusing a boy, Sartain removed him from his position. The priest admitted his guilt and last week was sentenced to four years in prison.

Sartain has publicly apologized to the boy and his family.

Asked about the incident at Thursday’s news conference, Sartain said: “What I have tried to do and will continue to try to do is to be very vigilant in the preparation of our priests, and to be very open to the suffering of victims … .” he said. “In every way, it’s heart wrenching.”

The Seattle archdiocese

As Seattle archbishop, Sartain will lead the largest of the state’s three Catholic dioceses, with 178 parishes and missions.

Sartain also will oversee a huge social-service provider — Catholic Community Services and Catholic Housing Services — and one of the state’s largest school systems.

Seattle’s archdiocese has grown steadily in the past 20 years, from about 350,000 registered Catholics to some 600,000, with almost 1 million who consider themselves Catholics.

And unlike some dioceses that have had to close parishes, it has remained relatively stable financially under Brunett’s nearly 13-year tenure.

An annual fundraiser has grown in proceeds for the past eight years, including a record $13 million last year.

Even so, the new archbishop faces significant challenges.

Despite the archdiocese’s successful fundraising, the recession has left it with little financial cushion.

Sartain is also coming to an archdiocese that is diverse ethnically, culturally and economically.

A large part of its growth has been from an influx of immigrants, especially Hispanics, estimated to be 1 in 4 of Catholics in the archdiocese.

Sartain said current immigration policies separate families. “I would be in favor of finding legal ways to remedy that situation,” he said.

Politically, Catholics in Western Washington span a wide range of perspectives.

Many favor liberal causes such as gay marriage and abortion rights, while others hold to traditional teachings against those practices. Similar divides exist over such church policies as mandatory celibacy for priests and banning women from the priesthood.

Sartain is also stepping into a Northwest culture that’s strongly secular and so — outside of his role within the church — he may not have as much sway as in other parts of the country.

And he also will have to manage the Seattle archdiocese’s continuing clergy sexual-abuse crisis. While the archdiocese has put child-protection policies and procedures in place, it also has faced criticism from victims’ advocates.

The search for Brunett’s successor began last year after Brunett submitted his resignation to the Vatican, as required at age 75.

Sartain’s appointment is part of what is expected to be a wave of new bishops as many now in place turn 75 and retire.

Sartain’s installation in Seattle is to take place within two months.

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or; Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249 or

Seattle Times staff reporter Maureen O’Hagan contributed to this report.

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