VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Nelson Perez, the Roman Catholic bishop of Cleveland and a critic of U.S. President Donald Trump’s immigration policy, was named by Pope Francis to lead the Philadelphia archdiocese after the retirement of a leading church conservative.
Perez, 58, succeeds Archbishop Charles Chaput, a guiding light of the church’s traditionalist wing whom Francis replaced after the prelate reached the age of 75. Chaput has a reputation as a “culture warrior” on issues such as homosexuality, same-sex marriage and abortion.
Perez said he was “deeply grateful” to the pope for picking him to head the Philadelphia archdiocese, home to about 1.4 million Catholics. He had served there as a parish priest decades earlier.
“It is with great joy tinged with a sense of sadness that I accept the appointment - joy that I will be returning to serve
@ArchPhilly, sadness in that I will be leaving @DioceseofCLE,” he said on Twitter.
Perez, who criticized Trump’s policy of separating migrant families, was born the son of Cuban exiles in Miami. He grew up in New Jersey and began working as a priest in Philadelphia in 1989.
Perez is the first Latino to be named archbishop of Philadelphia, one of the most important dioceses in the United States, and the third to head any American archdiocese.
His appointment reflects changing demographics. Thomas Groome, professor of religious studies and former director of the Boston College Center on the Church, said Hispanics now make up the backbone of the U.S. church.
“The American church, for 100 years, had been predominantly Irish,” he said in a telephone interview. “That era has passed. I think it is a new day for the Hispanic ministry of the church.”
About 55% of Latino adults in the United States, about 19.6 million people, identify themselves as Catholic, according to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center.
At a press conference in Philadelphia on Thursday morning, Perez frequently addressed the audience in Spanish, translating some of his remarks into English.
He said he would like people to call him “Father Nelson” as he was known by members of the Hispanic community when he was a young priest in Philadelphia.
By reputation, Perez is more moderate than Chaput, who has supported the denial of communion to Catholic politicians who backed abortion rights, Groome said. While a bishop in Denver, Chaput helped defeat local legislation supporting gay civil unions.
Chaput, who was appointed to the position by Pope Benedict in 2011, has been outspoken politically and at times at odds with the more moderate leanings of Francis, the first Latin American to head the Roman Catholic Church.
“He is a moderate replacing someone recognized as strongly conservative,” Groome said. “In this sense Bishop Perez is far more in line with the pontificate of Pope Francis.”
In his address, Perez also acknowledged the sexual abuse crisis that continues to rock the church. The scandal, including a decades-long cover-up by senior prelates of sexual misconduct by hundreds of priests, has spurred lawsuits and criminal investigations.
Between November 2018 and June 2019, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia paid more than $19 million to 93 people making claims of clergy sexual abuse, according to the online publication CatholicPhilly.com.
“I’d like to say to the victims of the church, that we hold you deep in our hearts and we are sorry,” Perez said.
Reporting By Philip Pullella in Vatican City and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by David Gregorio and Marguerita Choy