Fresno Bishop John Steinbock dies at 73

John Steinbock, the Roman Catholic bishop of Fresno who presided over a period of tremendous growth in his Central Valley diocese and was known as a strong administrator, a down-to-earth cleric and a hole-in-one golfer, died Sunday of lung cancer. He was 73.

A former parish priest in Los Angeles, Steinbock had led the Diocese of Fresno since 1991 and was credited with turning around its finances and welcoming the immigrants who accounted for an increasingly large proportion of its flock. Under his leadership, the diocese, encompassing most of the San Joaquin Valley, grew from about 350,000 worshipers to more than 1 million, according to diocesan officials.

He was known as a humble man of deep faith, possessed of more candor than is perhaps typical for a Catholic prelate.

"He wasn't the aristocrat bishop," said Gary Bethke, chief financial officer for the diocese. "He was a common, regular guy who could tell jokes and make people feel comfortable." He also was a serious golfer, and among his proudest accomplishments were two holes in one.

Like many Catholic bishops, he faced strong criticism over his handling of cases of sexual abuse by priests, although some praised him for taking a relatively forthright approach. In one recent case, a Sacramento attorney dropped a lawsuit against the diocese after discovering that Steinbock had removed the priest from the ministry and notified his previous parishes of the alleged crimes.

"I've filed a lot of these cases, and I've been almost uniformly critical of the handling of the cases, but it seemed to me that he'd responded in a reasonable and appropriate manner," said the lawyer, Joseph George.

Steinbock also stirred controversy in 2008 when he dismissed a priest who spoke out against Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California.

Born in Los Angeles on July 16, 1937, Steinbock was the youngest of three boys, all of whom became priests. At Los Angeles College, a now-defunct preparatory seminary, and at St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, he was known for his athleticism and good nature, according to former classmates.

After ordination in 1963, he was assigned to Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights and later to St. Vibiana Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles, where he ministered to the destitute on skid row. In those postings he encountered poverty, gangs and drugs; he also learned Spanish and developed close bonds with parishioners.

He later described those years in a slim book, "Ministry of Presence: Vignettes of Skid Row and East L.A. Ministry," in which he wrote of praying alongside a woman who had just lost 14 children and grandchildren in an apartment fire, and about panhandlers, gangbangers and cops.

"Where are you from, Mars?" he recalls a young tough saying when Steinbock tried to break up a knife fight by suggesting that two rival gangs play baseball instead.

He was consecrated as a bishop in 1984, assigned as auxiliary bishop for the Diocese of Orange. In 1987, he was named bishop of Santa Rosa, and four years later, was assigned to Fresno.

While in Santa Rosa, Steinbock allowed a priest to remain in youth ministry after the man admitted kissing and touching two underage girls. The priest was later arrested on suspicion of rape and molestation of two other girls, although he was acquitted of the rape charge.

In a lengthy profile in the Fresno Bee in 2002, Steinbock defended his actions but said he had learned a lesson.

"After that, you start being a little more reticent about believing the priest and a little more tough," he said.

In Fresno, Steinbock removed several priests when he became suspicious of their relationships with young boys. "He told his priests, 'You rob a bank, you go to jail,'" Bethke said. "You're not protected if you do the wrong thing."

Still, Steinbock drew criticism, especially when he publicly supported a priest who was accused of abusing an altar boy. The diocese eventually settled a lawsuit with the former altar boy, and the priest was allowed to stay in his job.

"As sad as it is to hear that Bishop Steinbock has passed, it is even sadder to know how poorly he protected the children and how much of a priority he gave to protecting the priests and the reputation of the diocese," said Jeff Anderson, a lawyer for sexual abuse victims who sued the diocese.

Steinbock, a longtime smoker who quit after he became a bishop, was diagnosed with lung cancer in early August. In October, he wrote an essay describing his reaction to the diagnosis: incredulity, followed by acceptance.

"Cancer of itself is not a gift," he wrote, "but the grace to accept it, embrace it and give thanks for it, is the greater gift of God within me."

Steinbock's body will lie in state at St. John's Cathedral in Fresno on Monday, and will be buried Tuesday following a funeral at St. Anthony of Padua church. Survivors include his brothers, Father Leo Steinbock and Robert Steinbock, a former priest.