An Ohio native, Roman Catholic Bishop Daniel Conlon expected to stay in the small town of Steubenville until the day he died. He even chose a cemetery plot there.

But when the request came from Pope Benedict XVI to become the new bishop of Joliet -- a diocese nearly 20 times larger and growing -- he cautiously accepted the assignment.

“It’s not just taking another job. When you’re a priest, it’s your whole life,” said Conlon, whose parents still live in the Cincinnati area where he was raised. “As a Christian, I don’t think my own personal satisfaction should be at the center of what I do with my life. I’m here to serve, to fulfill whatever task it is that God gives me and that, I think, makes it easier for me at this moment to move to another diocese.”

Leaving behind a diocese of 35,000 Catholics in the bucolic Appalachian region of Ohio, Conlon will become the fifth bishop of Joliet, a diocese that includes 655,000 Catholics in seven counties. He will be installed July 14 at the Cathedral of St. Raymond Nonnatus in Joliet.Conlon, 62, succeeds Bishop Peter Sartain who moved to Seattle last December. Sartain succeeded retired Bishop Joseph Imesch, whose 27-year tenure was tarnished by the clergy sex-abuse scandal.

Ordained in 1977 by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin when he was archbishop of Cincinnati, Conlon said he aspired to become a priest starting at the age of 7. Though personal doubts delayed his ordination for more than a year, he credits Bernardin for persuading him that he had what it took for religious life.

”The most serious struggle I had was whether or not I would find a sense of fulfillment,” Conlon said. “I think that is a contemporary struggle … It was a selfish thing for me. Now that I look back on more than 30 years as a priest … it has been extremely satisfying.”

Appointed by Bernardin to serve as the Cincinnati archdiocese’s assistant chancellor in 1981, Conlon left to study canon law for more than three years and returned to Cincinnati to serve as chancellor. He concedes that without procedures in place, he became the point person for allegations of clergy sexual abuse of minors “sort of haphazardly.”

Conlon eventually helped draft the archdiocese’s first policies regarding sexual abuse. He also played a key role in the church’s investigation of allegations against Bernardin that were ultimately recanted.

He now serves on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People. Victims’ advocates criticize Conlon’s track record on handling abuse allegations, saying he has ignored their letters and failed to post the names of offenders on the Steubenville diocese’s Web site.

Safeguarding the faith and influencing public policy has been Conlon’s primary focus. In addition to pushing bishops to take a strong position on the definition of marriage, he has been a staunch advocate of pressing the Obama administration to work to outlaw abortion.“This is not a matter of political compromise or a matter of finding some way of common ground,” Conlon told American bishops shortly after Obama’s election. “It's a matter of absolutes.”

He said he has not decided whether to deny communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights or same-sex marriage.

Illinois officials are examining whether religious agencies that receive public funds to license foster care parents, including Catholic Charities of Joliet, are breaking anti-discrimination laws if they turn away openly gay parents.

If they are found in violation, those agencies could lose millions of state dollars, potentially ending their legacy of foster care and adoption services.

‘“What’s been happening is there’s been so much of a shift in the values reflected in the law that our religious freedom is being put at risk in some cases,” Conlon said on Tuesday. “I think as the shepherds of the church we need to speak out, perhaps even stronger in some situations, to protect the people that we are charged by God to lead.”

mbrachear@tribune.com

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