BISHOP J. PETER SARTAIN: New bishop is eager to lift spirits

Roman CatholicismChristianitySexual MisconductMemphisMinority GroupsSexual Assault

The man who will succeed beleaguered Bishop Joseph Imesch as head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Joliet was described Tuesday as a warm, engaging leader--a bishop who never stopped being a good priest.

Bishop J. Peter Sartain, 53, is a Southern-born-and-bred Catholic who has led the Diocese of Little Rock, Ark., since 2000. In his new role, he takes over a diocese of about 650,000 Catholics, about six times the size of Arkansas' 107,000 faithful.He also inherits feelings of anger and betrayal over Imesch's handling of sex-abuse allegations against diocese priests--an ongoing controversy on a much larger scale than anything Sartain has faced in his young career.

"Do I come here with a mission or agenda? Not at all," Sartain said Tuesday at the Romeoville news conference where Imesch announced his resignation. "I have much to learn, and that process will take some time.

"I hope to continue in earnest the healing already begun here and needed so badly throughout our country following the scourge of sexual abuse by some clergy and others acting in the name of the church."

Imesch's retirement ends a 27-year tenure as head of a diocese that covers much of Chicago's western and southwestern suburbs. Though he has been accused in recent years of overprotecting priests, Imesch said his departure "certainly has nothing to do" with abuse.

"I will be 75, and that's the determining issue," he said.

At that age, bishops are required to offer their resignation to the pope.

Sartain, whose name rhymes with "spartan," will be installed as the fourth bishop of the Joliet diocese June 27.

In Little Rock, Sartain is admired for his intellect as well as his pastoral kindness and compassion. Although he has little experience dealing with sex-abuse allegations, that has not kept him from speaking out about the scandal as "despicable" and consoling victims, said Little Rock's vicar general, Monsignor Francis Malone.

"I've watched him firsthand, up close, as he ministered to priests who were experiencing difficulty, who were experiencing personal sickness, or family problems," Malone said. "I watched him as he ministered to people on his staff and parishioners.

"He exemplifies that compassion that you would hope to find in a pastor and in a bishop. He never lost the sense of being a pastor."

Several who know him marveled at his uncanny ability to remember the name of every person he meets.

"He has a phenomenal talent for that. If he meets you once, he calls you a friend ... forever. It's amazing. It's a wonderful talent," said Monsignor Scott Marczuk of Little Rock's Cathedral of St. Andrew.

"He's there to listen. He's been very approachable and accessible to see what needs to be done in his leadership role as a shepherd. I think he will be very much a reconciler and that will be good for Joliet."

Sartain's sister Marian, a Dominican nun in Nashville, said he called last week to say he had been appointed to lead the Joliet diocese--and that he felt ready.

"He's very much a man of faith," Marian Sartain said. "He's very convinced that this is where God wants him to go and these are the people God wants him to shepherd. He's ready to embrace all that."

James Peter Sartain was born in 1952 in Memphis to Joseph Martin and Catherine Poole Sartain, the youngest of five children and the only boy.

As a child he lived in Whitehaven, Tenn., attending St. Paul School where his mother served as school secretary for 35 years. They were devout Catholics, praying the rosary as a family nearly every night.

After studying in Memphis, Indiana and Rome, Sartain was ordained on July 15, 1978. Over 22 years in Memphis, he served in various administrative roles, including director of vocations, chancellor, high school chaplain and judge with the diocese's marriage tribunal. In his last eight years, he was pastor of St. Louis Catholic Church and vicar general to his boss and close friend Bishop Terry Steib, the first African-American bishop of Memphis.

In 2000, Pope John Paul II appointed Sartain bishop of Little Rock. He was the first priest from Memphis to be named a bishop. As his episcopal motto, Sartain adopted a Bible verse: "Of you, my heart has spoken."

"That simple phrase has resonated in my heart for many years," Sartain said Tuesday. "And it seemed an apt way to summarize my sense of vocation. Simply put, `Of you my heart has spoken' reminds me that my deepest yearning is for God and that my heart speaks spontaneously of Him."

In Arkansas, Surtain's biggest challenge was accommodating a huge influx of Latino Catholics, Malone said. The population shift prompted Sartain to move temporarily to Texas to learn Spanish and about Latino culture.

"He really went out of his way to learn Spanish, to speak Spanish, to minister to the people, establish churches, give them good pastors, encourage priests and seminarians to learn Spanish," said Malone. "And it turned out to be a blessing for this diocese."

In 2004, Sartain shocked the diocese when he outlawed bingo, a source of church funding.

According to a review of church files, 11 priests in Arkansas have been accused of sexually abusing minors from the 1950s through the 1980s. No priests have been credibly accused since then, Sartain said.

Still, Sartain has often publicly condemned the abuse of children by clergy and was one of the first voices backing a zero-tolerance policy for abusive priests. On Tuesday, he affirmed that view.

"Anybody who has been convicted of child sexual abuse should not be in the ministry, period," he said.

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