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Column: Bishop O’Connell couldn’t bring me back to the church, but he restored my faith in faith

A hand touches a picture of Bishop David O'Connell printed on a flyer hang at a street-sign post.
A woman touches a picture of Bishop David G. O’Connell, who was killed at his Hacienda Heights home on Saturday, during an outdoor vigil. Police are investigating the case as a homicide.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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When I learned that Auxiliary Bishop David G. O’Connell had been shot to death in his home, I felt as if I had been turned to stone. I was standing in the house he had blessed, about to head out on a long-planned trip with my youngest daughter.

Years ago, when I told him I was pregnant with her, he had laughed. “A third, at your age? Sure, you’re still a Catholic at heart.”

Over the years, O’Connell had done his best to coax me back to the church. Though it never quite worked, he achieved something more miraculous: He restored my faith in faith.

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I don’t know many people who have lived a life of loving service without that love at some point becoming bitter. Or without turning away from service and toward power. But I did know David O’Connell. Not well enough to begin to understand why someone would kill him — as I write this, a man has been arrested who is connected to a woman who may have worked in O’Connell’s home — but enough to know it is a huge loss to the many who knew him and to Los Angeles.

A little more than 20 years ago, I was asked by one of this newspaper’s editors to do a day-in-the-life kind of story about “an ordinary priest.” After decades of victim-shaming, stonewalling and outright lying, the Catholic Church in general, and the Los Angeles Diocese in particular, was finally being forced to admit that a horrifyingly high number of priests had sexually abused children. In many cases, church officials had been aware of the abuse and chose to protect the criminal priests rather than their victims.

The story I was asked to write would look at how a noncriminal priest, a presumably good priest, was coping during this time.

I was not thrilled by this assignment. A lifelong Catholic, I had recently stopped attending Mass in my parish. The seemingly never-ending revelations of sexual abuse sickened and infuriated me. I had grown up surrounded by priests, some of them close family friends, whom I had been taught to treat with deference and respect.

Like many, I felt betrayed by the code of silence that had allowed so much abuse to continue. Numerically, it seemed impossible that none of “my” priests knew about or were involved in the church’s systemic cover-up (and indeed, one was eventually arrested and convicted of abuse).

I wasn’t really interested in meeting any more or worrying about how they were coping.

But it was an assignment, not a request, so I gathered a list of possibilities and chose then-Msgr. David O’Connell. An Irishman who spoke fluent Spanish, he was pastor to churches — Ascension and St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, both in South-Central Los Angeles — and had helped bring calm to his parishes after the 1992 riots.

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Hardly ordinary, but at least not under investigation. (When I told him this, years later, he asked me if I could put it on a T-shirt.)

When he returned my call, he was a bit wary himself. He asked if I had found him through the PR agency then-Archbishop Roger Mahony had hired; O’Connell was not interested in being part of Mahony’s still-well-oiled publicity machine. I assured him I had not, and he agreed to speak with me.

For three days, I followed him through his various ministries — the Masses, the school functions, the prayer circles, the private meetings with parishioners, the public meetings with local leaders. I watched him console the grieving, counsel the struggling, laugh with the children, rail against the hopelessness that took the lives of so many under his care. The week before, he had presided over three funerals for young men killed by gang violence.

I told myself I was keeping my mind and my eyes wide open; I didn’t want to be tricked again by someone who believed a child abuser should be dealt with prayerfully rather than handed over to the police.

In the end, my heart opened all by itself.

Maybe it was the Irish brogue, or the dog he had adopted, or the fact that he saw prayer as activism and activism as prayer. He began his day before dawn, ended it after midnight and filled almost every hour with people, all sorts of people in every state of emotion, need and grace.

After spending eight hours with him, I was so exhausted I could barely drive home, and I had done nothing but watch him work and ask him questions.

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Including, and repeatedly, why he remained part of an institution so obviously flawed and, at many levels, corrupt. He agreed with both of these things, and his anger at Mahony and the church for their attempt to defend the indefensible, flashed harsh and often. He thought restricting the priesthood to celibate males was ridiculous; women should be ordained and the clergy should be allowed to marry.

“If there had been some parents in there running things,” he said, “none of this would have ever happened.”

But he loved being a priest because he believed, quite simply but very deeply, that through the teachings of Jesus Christ, we would find salvation. Not just in heaven, but right here in Los Angeles, where people in power needed to follow Christ’s directive to treat every person as we would be treated ourselves.

He was, as many have said in the shocking vacuum after his death, a peacemaker, who wanted not just to help immigrants, the poor, the hungry and those beset by violence and crime, but to fix the systems that create the problems.

But he was a priest first, an activist second. Or maybe it was all the same to him, a mystery of multiple identities such as the Holy Trinity. Not that he was particularly holy. “Oh, look, it’s himself, the rock star,” he said to me once, eyes twinkling, when a well-known leader of another church showed up at a community leader meeting. “He must have heard there was a reporter here.”

I wrote my piece. O’Connell called to thank me and to see if I’d had a change of heart about returning to Mass. I told him I was attending an Episcopal church and he groaned: “Ah, you’re breaking my heart.”

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We spoke, on and off, for years. When we moved, I asked him to bless our new home. We occasionally had lunch; he would invite me to meetings, call to keep me posted on some local initiative or other. One day he accompanied me and my two young kids to the park, laughing when my son jumped into a small stream and my daughter did a butt-waggling dance for every person we passed.

“Whenever I think being a priest is hard,” he said, “I spend some time with parents.”

But he was never my priest nor was I his parishioner, or even close to the demographic he served. We were both busy people, and the conversations grew more infrequent. When he was named auxiliary bishop, I called to congratulate him.

“No thanks to you,” he laughed, explaining that when people read his quotes about female and married priests they told him he had ruined his chances for advancement. “But here we are,” he said. “Things must be getting better after all.”

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