‘I’m home:’ Nelson Perez named Philadelphia’s first Hispanic archbishop

The bishop of Cleveland is the new leader of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Nelson Perez will be the first Hispanic archbishop to lead the area's 1.3 million members.

Updated 12:18 p.m.

The bishop of Cleveland will become the new leader of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the Vatican announced Thursday, making him the first Hispanic archbishop to lead the region’s 1.3 million-member flock.

A news conference was held Thursday morning to introduce Nelson Perez. He will succeed Archbishop Charles Chaput, a conservative culture warrior who will step down after turning 75 last year, the traditional retirement age for Catholic bishops.

The son of Cuban immigrants, Perez was born in Miami, Florida and raised in West New York, New Jersey. He graduated from Montclair State University in 1983, going on to earn a Master of Divinity and Master of Arts in Theology from the Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia.

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Perez, 58, is coming home in a way. After attending the diocesan seminary in Philadelphia in 1988 and 1989, his first role in priesthood landed him as parochial vicar of St. Ambrose Parish in Olney.

He also served as assistant director of Philadelphia’s Office for Hispanic Catholics in the early 1990s and was founding director of the Catholic Institute for Evangelization from 1993 to 2002.

Before he was named as an auxiliary bishop in Rockville Centre, New York and then bishop of Cleveland in 2017, Perez served as pastor at St. William’s in Lawncrest and St. Agnes in West Chester.

“Once a Philadelphia priest, always a Philadelphia priest,” Perez said during Thursday’s news conference. “That part of me that has that identity inside of me can’t wrap my mind around being the Archbishop of Philadelphia. It just doesn’t compute.”

Active on immigration issues

Perez launched an initiative to develop a strategic plan for strengthening Catholic education in the Cleveland diocese. He implemented changes in elementary religion teaching and began a “think tank” to recommend ways to ensure that youth and young adults are fully involved in the life of the local church, according to a news release from the Cleveland diocese.

While only serving in Cleveland for two-and-a-half years, Perez said he’s sad to leave the diocese.

“I can’t say that that brings me joy. It brings me sadness because they were so, so good to me,” Perez said. “I made great friends and I will always have them here in my heart. But now I’m here, and in a real sense, I’m home.”

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In Cleveland, Perez often shared his thoughts and opinions on U.S. immigration policies. In an interview with Cleveland.com in 2018, he said the federal government’s child separation policy was “a result of an immigration system that is broken.”

“We’ve lost our moral compass,” he said.

In 2017, he also personally pleaded with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to allow Pedro Hernandez-Ramirez, who was living in Elyria, Ohio, to stay in the country so he could care for his severely disabled stepson.

Perez vows to support clergy sex abuse victims

He will oversee the Archdiocese of Philadelphia more than a year after Pennsylvania’s grand jury report detailed the abuse of 1,000 children by 300 “predator priests” in six of the state’s eight Roman Catholic diocese.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia was investigated by two previous grand juries, and in 2018 set up a victims’ compensation program that has doled out roughly $32 million so far.

Perez addressed the abuse scandal during Thursday’s news conference.

“I want to say something to the victims that have been hurt by the church, in fact by some of our very own,” Perez said. “I and we continue to pray for your healing and support you. We hold you deep in our hearts those that have been hurt.”

Perez has also had to deal with the issue of sexual abuse by priests. The Cleveland diocese last year made public a list of 22 previously unidentified priests and other clergy it said had been credibly accused of sexually abusing minors. Perez said in a letter announcing the release of the names that a committee assembled by the diocese determined that the accusations against the clerics were “more likely than not to be true.”

He pledged in 2018 to follow the lead of other dioceses and release the names of priests credibly accused of sexual abuse, past and present. The Cleveland diocese in 2002 began publishing the names of priests who were accused from that year forward.

Chaput, for his part, faced a difficult task trying to restore credibility in the Philadelphia hierarchy following revelations of clergy sexual abuse and cover-up by his predecessors that were revealed in 2005 and 2011 grand jury investigations.

Chaput’s retirement plans

Appointed in September 2011, Chaput — coming from Denver — was very much in favor under conservative Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. He was named to participate in important Vatican missions even while being denied the cardinal’s red hat that his predecessors enjoyed.

Chaput and Perez overlapped in their appointments for a very short time. Perez left the Philadelphia area after he was appointed bishop in New York in May 2012. Perez describes Chaput as a “friend and mentor.”

“We thank him for facing the challenges he had to face in Philadelphia with great courage and steadfastness … and with profound faith,” Perez said. “He did that despite the criticisms knowing that what needed to be done needed to be done, making hard decisions. He made calls that today have placed the archdiocese in a way better place and we owe him a profound debt.”

Chaput, a member of the Capuchin order, has denied that he is a critic of the more progressive Pope Francis, He hosted the Argentine pope when he visited Philadelphia in 2015 for a big family rally. The visit, including a Mass that drew a reported 1 million people, gave Francis a much more positive impression of the U.S. than he had going into the trip.

But the two clashed. After Francis opened the door to letting divorced and civilly remarried Catholics receive Communion in 2016, Chaput closed the door in Philadelphia by saying they must abstain from sex if they want the sacrament.

Chaput was also one of several U.S. bishops who praised the integrity of leading Francis critic, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano. The former Vatican ambassador to the U.S. in 2018 called for Francis to resign for allegedly rehabilitating ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, alleging he was part of a two-decade conspiracy of a cover-up.

In his letter, Vigano implied Francis opposed Chaput’s conservativism, quoting the pope as telling him in 2013 that U.S. bishops must not be ideologically driven, “they must not be right-wing like the archbishop of Philadelphia.”

Francis has said he doesn’t remember details of the 2013 meeting.

While Francis quickly accepted Chaput’s resignation, this week he formally told another 75-year-old prelate to stay on indefinitely.

Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the archbishop of Vienna, is a strong Francis supporter and helped draft the final document at the controversial Amazon Synod, where bishops called for married priests in the Amazon.

Speaking of his retirement, Chaput said Thursday he plans to take three months off from religious work “reading, cooking and praying.”

“I would like to not have anything on my schedule so I can be spontaneous with my life,” Chaput said.

After that short break, he plans to move from the seminary to St. Edmond’s Home for Children in Bryn Mawr.

Perez will officially be installed as archbishop on Feb. 18.

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