The new leader of the nation's Roman Catholic bishops says he will draw on his years as a pastor to guide American bishops as they attempt to shift focus under Pope Francis, who wants more emphasis on compassion than on divisive social issues such as gay marriage.
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Kentucky was elected on Nov. 12 as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a role that makes him the U.S church's spokesman on national issues and a representative of American bishops to the Vatican and the pope.
Kurtz, a 67-year-old Pennsylvania native and a former bishop of Knoxville, Tenn., pledged after his election Tuesday to focus the bishops' work on reaching out to the poor and underserved, a mission emphasized by the new pope.
"The challenge for us in welcoming people and most especially serving people who are voiceless and vulnerable, spans right across the board from our work in immigration (to) our work in serving people who are poor," Kurtz said.
But Kurtz has also used his time as Louisville Archbishop to take strong stands on the kind of hot-button cultural issues the new pope says have occupied too much of the church's focus. Since coming to Louisville, he has joined praying protesters in front of an abortion clinic, donated $1,000 of archdiocese money to a same-sex marriage repeal effort in Maine and joined other Catholic leaders in denouncing a federal requirement for employers to provide health insurance that covers artificial contraceptives.
And Kurtz is not without critics in his archdiocese. Among them are victims of clergy abuse who successfully sued the Louisville archdiocese and reached a $25 million settlement in 2003. The agreement included 242 plaintiffs.
Some of those victims who remain outspoken on clergy abuse issues said Kurtz hasn't done enough to heal the lingering wounds from the scandal.
"To me there's no real outreach to survivors," said Jeff Koenig, a member of the Louisville chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "We had to approach him, he has never reached out to us."
Koenig said archdiocese officials have offered the survivors group a brief meeting with Kurtz, but they have sought a longer interaction.
At the bishops meeting, Kurtz won just over half the votes in a field of 10 candidates. He succeeds New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who is ending a three-year term. The new vice president is Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, Texas.