Seattle has a new Catholic archbishop.
Paul D. Etienne was appointed Tuesday to be the sixth archbishop of the Seattle Archdiocese, which encompasses Western Washington, home to 169 parishes, missions and pastoral centers and an estimated Roman Catholic population of roughly 640,000. He succeeds Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, whose resignation Pope Francis accepted Tuesday.
Sartain, citing “ongoing health challenges following a series of spinal surgeries,” asked Pope Francis a year ago to appoint a “coadjutor archbishop” to share his duties, according to a news statement from the Archdiocese of Seattle. Etienne, 60, assumed that role in June.
In an interview in the downtown Seattle archdiocese offices, he allowed he had to figure out how to lead a region of this size. Etienne last served as archbishop of Anchorage, which has 33 parishes and missions and about 32,000 Catholics. While he liked to be in close contact with everyone, he said, “that’s not a luxury I’m going to be able to afford here.”
He has other challenges as well, reflecting those facing the Catholic Church as whole. Revelations of sexual abuse by priests — called a “moral catastrophe” in a statement last year by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops — has caused a crisis of confidence for many Catholics. U.S. bishops have taken steps to become more transparent and accountable, voting in June to set up a hotline for reports of abuse. In 2016, the Seattle Archdiocese released the names of 77 members of clergy it said had credible allegations against them.
But victims’ advocates say those measures have not been enough. Meanwhile, reformers have pressed for other changes, including increasing the role of women and laypeople. And controversy has flared over the church’s teachings on homosexuality and opposition to same-sex marriage.
Etienne said his highest priority was strengthening and extending the faith.
He was born in Tell City, Indiana, one of six children, including two brothers who are Catholic priests and one sister who is a Benedictine nun.
He did not initially intend to become a priest, deciding after a post-high-school stint managing a clothing store that he wanted to become a “self-made businessman,” have a big family and raise horses and beagles, according to an April profile in the publication Northwest Catholic.
“God eventually started stripping away, piece by piece, my dream to replace it with his,” he said.
He became a priest in 1992, served as the pastor of several parishes in the Indianapolis Archdiocese and was appointed bishop of the Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyoming in 2009. He went to Anchorage in 2016.
As the archbishop there, Etienne spoke out forcefully about the abuse crisis and launched an independent commission to review the region’s files from the past 50 years.
“We want people to know we’re not going to hide behind closed doors,” he told Alaska TV station KTVA.
Last August, on his blog, “Truth in Love,” he also called for bishops to be held accountable for the way they have handled abuse allegations and recommended the creation of a national review board to hear allegations against bishops themselves.
The Vatican chose not to create such a board but this spring established new procedures for dealing with allegations against bishops, Etienne said in the Tuesday interview. Those include creating a list of experts in each region who can help conduct investigations.
“That will be one of my first responsibilities,” Etienne said, explaining that the list could include counselors, lawyers, law enforcement and professionals working with youth.
The new archbishop said he also planned to create a separate board of laypeople to give him input on overall affairs. “I want them to know their voice is important,” he said.
But talking with some people, specifically those challenging church teaching on homosexuality and demanding recognition of same-sex marriage, requires a “delicate dance,” he said.
The landscape is different from the one confronted by Sartain, archbishop when Washington’s Legislature passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage. He encouraged parishes to gather signatures for a 2012 referendum that put the matter to voters. Legally, the issue is firmly settled in favor of same-sex marriage. Yet, the church is still wrestling with the aftermath.
“I personally don’t even like to use that type of language,” Etienne said, referring to the term LGBTQ, which he said identifies people by their sexual orientation rather than as children of God.
“Our teaching on marriage is not going to change,” he said. “We believe marriage is between a man and a woman.”
At the same time, he said, the church’s mission is to “lead people to Christ” and “accompany them wherever they are in their journey.” So the church has to learn how to do that while not compromising its teachings, according to the archbishop.
During a noon Facebook Live on Tuesday, Etienne did not address such controversies, but focused on the importance of prayer and his desire to help people overcome isolation by discovering a community of faith.
He also expressed gratitude to his predecessor, who he said had been graciously helping him get to know the region.
Hundreds of people from all over the archdiocese came to say goodbye to Sartain as he presided over a Mass at St. James Cathedral on Sunday.
“I’m more grateful than I can possibly say,” Sartain said in brief remarks, referring to his nine years as Seattle archbishop.
“We find it difficult to let you go,” Father Michael Ryan of St. James said in turn. In a letter to the parish, Ryan spoke of Sartain’s “deep humility” and “quiet joy.”
Others there talked about the archbishop’s warmth and his ability to make parishioners feel known and special.
“He knows you by your first name,” said Lois Castelli-Leff, who just left a job as an administrative assistant for the chancery to work for a Catholic preschool. “How many archbishops would say, ‘Hi Lois?'”
“I think he has extraordinary listening skills,” said Jessika Satori, who lives on Vashon Island and belongs to a community of Benedictine sisters.
That came into play, she said, when Sartain was charged with overseeing a Vatican-ordered reform of the largest organization of American nuns. The Vatican had said the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which wanted more autonomy, was promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”
But Sartain did not take a confrontational tone when meeting with the group’s leaders, they said afterward, and he helped broker a reconciliation with the Vatican.
Sartain did not speak much publicly about the abuse crisis, but the archdiocese under him launched a website called “Protect and Heal.” On it could be found the list of 77 names, developed after a review of archdiocese files by an outside consulting firm.
This archdiocese was one of the first to release names of alleged abusers, acknowledged Mary Dispenza, Northwest leader of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “So he deserves some credit for that,” she said.
Still, she said investigations around the country, and serving through SNAP as contact for those abused by nuns, lead her to believe that there are many more members of clergy that could have been listed. For a full accounting, she said, the archdiocese needs to release its records to the public and law enforcement.
She said she was hopeful that a new archbishop would do so.
“I don’t think we’re entertaining releasing records to the public,” Etienne said, however. Asked why, he said, “mostly for the protection of the victims themselves.” There’s a lot of information about them in the files.
That much, under the new archbishop, will apparently not be changing.