Archbishop Alex Brunett leaving behind a 'vibrant' archdiocese
As Seattle Roman Catholic Archbishop Alex Brunett prepares to retire, he leaves a growing and financially stable archdiocese that's become increasingly diverse, but one in which some members — particularly liberals — feel alienated.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Archbishop Alexander J. Brunett
Born: Jan. 17, 1934, in Detroit.
Family: Second-oldest of 14 surviving children (one sister died at birth). Father was a plumber; mother a homemaker.
Education: Bachelor of Arts from Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit. Bachelor of Sacred Theology from Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. Postgraduate studies in the U.S., Israel, France and Germany.
Priest: Ordained July 13, 1958, in Rome. Served as associate pastor, pastor or chaplain at parishes and universities in Michigan from 1959 to 1994.
Bishop: Appointed Bishop of Helena, Mont., in 1994.
Archbishop: Appointed Archbishop of Seattle on Oct. 28, 1997; installed Dec. 18.
Other interests: Plays golf. Speaks Italian and Latin, and is knowledgeable in five other languages.
Source: Seattle Archdiocese
How a new bishop is selected
The current bishop submits a resignation letter to the Vatican, as all bishops are required to do at age 75.
The apostolic nuncio: The papal representative to the United States, currently Archbishop Pietro Sambi, takes recommendations and narrows the list to three candidates.
Congregation for Bishops: The panel of 35 cardinals and archbishops from around the world picks one of the three names to be forwarded to the pope.
Pope Benedict XVI makes the final decision.
Source: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
From a distinctive new parish in Vancouver to a small but bustling new elementary school in Bellevue, Archbishop Alex Brunett's contributions to the Seattle Archdiocese dot the landscape.
At 76, Brunett is preparing to retire. And as he waits for the Vatican to appoint his successor, the spiritual leader of some 600,000 Roman Catholics across Western Washington is leaving an archdiocese that's in good shape and growing.
While some dioceses across the country are struggling financially — or are even bankrupt — Seattle's is relatively stable. And under Brunett's 12-year tenure, it has added five new parishes and five new schools, expanded services for the poor, increased its ministry to Hispanic and other multicultural communities, and seen more men studying for the priesthood.
Known for his energy, vision, administrative skills and a keen understanding of how institutions and systems work, Brunett has guided the archdiocese through major upheavals, including the church's sexual-abuse crisis and the recession.
"He's going to hand his successor a vibrant archdiocese," said the Rev. Kurt Nagel, pastor at Holy Family Parish in Kirkland. "That's the ultimate legacy."
At the same time, though, some Catholics — especially liberals — in the politically and theologically diverse archdiocese feel disheartened under Brunett, saying they haven't felt heard. To them, the archbishop can appear brusque, imperious, stubborn and controlling.
Brunett's idea of dialogue "is to have a very brief discussion, where his view is clearly heard and the other half of the dialogue isn't sure they've been heard at all," said Paul Post, a member of Voice of the Faithful, which advocates for giving more power to Catholic laypeople.
But those close to the archbishop say he's merely guarded; that underneath is a man who's compassionate, genial and funny.
"I think there's a side that people don't see: more fun-loving, more pastoral," said Patty Repikoff, who coordinates Hispanic ministry for 14 parishes on the Eastside.
But it was Brunett's appreciation for a well-run system that most struck her several years ago when the archbishop visited Christ the King Parish in North Seattle, where she was working at the time.
Brunett had come to look at building renovations at the church. He checked out the flooring, the plumbing, asked about the structural integrity.
"He wanted to make sure we had good systems, good foundations," Repikoff said. "Because those are what will stand the test of time."
A vocal advocate
Brunett came to the Seattle Archdiocese in 1997, and he submitted his resignation letter to the Vatican last year, as all bishops must do at age 75.
It's not known when the Vatican will name his successor. It could be any day now, but also may not happen for weeks or even months.
From the beginning, Brunett's approach to contentious issues has reflected a willingness to take on a fight — provided it doesn't put him in conflict with church doctrine.
Early in his tenure, he challenged a plan by then-King County Executive Ron Sims to restrict the size of new churches and private schools in rural areas, saying it would limit how well the archdiocese could serve its growing population. The County Council eventually dropped the plan.
More recently, he's championed immigration overhaul — a position in line with that of the U.S. bishops, but for which he's taken flak from some conservative parishioners.
Betty Hill, co-chairwoman of Call to Action Western Washington, which wants to see the church ordain women and end mandatory celibacy for priests, says she's had a hard time even getting in to talk about those issues with the archbishop, whom she characterizes as "very loyal to his superiors and not that loyal to the people he shepherds."
Under Brunett and current church leadership as a whole, she said, many liberal Catholics feel angry and increasingly alienated.
Gay and lesbian Catholics also feel they've lost ground under Brunett, who has opposed several statewide gay-rights measures. Under his tenure, a group that had long sponsored a Mass for gay and lesbian Catholics at a Seattle parish stopped doing so after being told it could not publicize its presence or distribute literature at the parish, group members said.
But more-traditional Catholics have felt heartened under Brunett's tenure.
Jason King, who headed a group that had long pushed for a traditional Latin Mass, says he's found Brunett far more accessible than his predecessors. And in 2008, Brunett granted the group's request to form a traditional Latin Mass parish.
In general, Brunett has hewed to church teachings and Rome's directives but has tried to find a pragmatic, middle way.
For example, when bishops in other dioceses made headlines by threatening to deny Holy Communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, Brunett said priests should not do that — but also put the onus on such politicians not to seek Communion in the first place.
"He's done what every bishop in the church has tried to do for 2,000 years, which is to try to keep as many people as possible within the embrace of the tradition," said Post, the Voice of the Faithful member. "That's not an easy thing to do."
Brunett says he's open to dialogue and couches his unwillingness to discuss certain issues in pragmatic terms. "You accommodate people as best you can within the framework that you're working with," he says. And since the church requires, for example, that priests remain celibate, "I'm not going to dialogue that issue."
Handling of abuse crisis
His handling of the sexual-abuse crisis has garnered mixed reviews.
He's been criticized for being too secretive and controlling, and for releasing only minimal information about offending priests. John Shuster, a local member of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, says Brunett's actions on that front have "been PR-driven and defensive."
But Brunett also has earned kudos for the policies and procedures he's put into place to train employees and safeguard children from future abuses. The head of the office of child protection for the national bishops' organization said she considers Seattle a national leader on that front.
And Brunett also made smart moves to minimize the financial risk to the archdiocese.
Michael Patterson, the archdiocese's attorney, recalls that when lawsuits started coming in, Brunett told Patterson and the archdiocese's chief financial officer to go to the East Coast to meet personally with the decision-makers for the archdiocese's insurance companies, rather than relying on local adjusters.
As a result, Patterson said, the Seattle Archdiocese has not had the extensive wrangling with its insurers over settlement payments that some other dioceses have had.
Of the $42 million the archdiocese has paid to some 300 victims over the past 23 years, roughly 70 percent has been paid by insurance.
More than five years ago, local church leaders realized they needed a comprehensive plan for ministering to the archdiocese's booming Hispanic population.
There were too few Spanish-speaking priests and people to teach faith classes, and Spanish-language Masses were standing-room only.
After church leaders and lay Catholics forged such a plan, Brunett "really pushed the plan through," said Repikoff, the Eastside Hispanic ministries coordinator.
Brunett also believes strongly in Catholic education.
In addition to the new schools built under his tenure, Brunett established the Fulcrum Foundation, which in six years raised $43 million for an endowment to help poorer Catholic schools and students. "It's no good if you just have schools for the rich," he said.
Brunett said that what matters most to him are not the systems and buildings in and of themselves, but rather that they enable faith to flourish and young people to learn and grow.
"That's what important — that these things don't die."
Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org