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Well-known Catholic bishop shot to death near Los Angeles, officials say

Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell, killed Saturday, was especially called to minister to migrants, the poor and those involved in gang violence, associates say

Bishop David O'Connell, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, was shot to death Saturday in Hacienda Heights, Calif., according to law enforcement and the archdiocese. (Julio Cortez/AP)
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A high-ranking Catholic clergyman in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles who was known for having “a heart for the poor,” was shot to death Saturday, according to law enforcement officials and the archdiocese.

Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell, 69, was killed about 1 p.m. local time in a residential area of Hacienda Heights, Calif., about 15 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said.

Sheriff’s deputies said they responded to a medical emergency call on Janlu Avenue and found O’Connell suffering from a gunshot wound. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

Linda Dakin-Grimm, an L.A. attorney and longtime friend of O’Connell’s, said he lived on Janlu Avenue in a home owned by the archdiocese. Angelus News, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’s official news outlet, said O’Connell was found dead at his residence.

“We can only imagine how the community is suffering because of this senseless murder,” the sheriff’s department said in a statement. “Bishop O’Connell was a guiding light for so many, and his legacy will continue to live on through the community that he helped build.”

No one was in custody in the killing as of Sunday afternoon, and a motive was unclear. Sheriff’s Deputy Lizette Falcon said there was no danger to the public.

Archbishop of Los Angeles José H. Gomez said Sunday that his office was “deeply disturbed and saddened” by law enforcement’s determination that O’Connell’s death was a homicide.

Catholics gathered Saturday evening near the scene of the shooting, where they clutched candles and prayed the Hail Mary, according to video shared by a Los Angeles Daily News reporter. A flier posted next to caution tape contained the eternal rest prayer for the dead and a message of love for O’Connell.

“He was always talking to people about Jesus and forgiveness, and the least judgmental person I have ever met,” Dakin-Grimm told The Washington Post. “He was really based in faith, not ambition or position or being in a social club.”

O’Connell served in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the largest Catholic diocese in the United States, for 45 years and was known as “a man of deep prayer,” Gomez said Saturday while announcing that O’Connell had died unexpectedly.

“He was a peacemaker with a heart for the poor and the immigrant, and he had a passion for building a community where the sanctity and dignity of every human life was honored and protected,” Gomez said in a statement. “He was also a good friend, and I will miss him greatly.”

O’Connell, affectionately known as “Bishop Dave,” was one of five auxiliary bishops who assist Gomez with pastoral and administrative tasks. A native of County Cork, Ireland, O’Connell served at several parishes in South Los Angeles.

He ministered to people experiencing poverty and gang violence, and he sought to smooth relationships between law enforcement and community members, according to Angelus News. The same tensions that O’Connell sought to quell eventually led to the 1992 Los Angeles riots that followed the beating of Rodney King by police officers.

“I’ve been part of the people’s lives, and been there during the suffering of the young people who have lost their lives so many times, but I haven’t had any problems,” O’Connell told Angelus News in 2015. “I do believe what’s really important is for us to be out in the neighborhoods, to be out with the people.”

O’Connell became an auxiliary bishop and episcopal vicar for the archdiocese’s San Gabriel region in 2015. He accepted Pope Francis’s call to serve as a bishop reluctantly, Dakin-Grimm said, believing it to be an administrative role far from his comfort zone working with people in the inner city.

While serving as chair of the Southern California Immigration Task Force, which lobbies for immigration reform, O’Connell ministered to immigrants behind the scenes. He often paid for unaccompanied minors to attend Catholic schools or persuaded principals to enroll the students free of charge, Dakin-Grimm said.

In another situation, she added, O’Connell directed his staff to find an apartment for a mother and daughter after the father was deported. Then, O’Connell paid their rent for two years until the father returned. He also wrote a letter to Immigration and Customs Enforcement in support of the family — a key factor in their receipt of asylum last year, Dakin-Grimm said.

In his free time, O’Connell was a stand-up comedian who laughed at his own jokes and incorporated playful digs at priests and nuns into his “groaner” comedy, Dakin-Grimm said. In one bit, two nuns are in a car when a vampire jumps on the windshield, and one nun says to the other, “Show them your cross!” a play on the phrase “show them you’re cross,” or angry.

O’Connell put his love for comedy to good use: He hosted an annual event called the Unfriendly Sons of St. Patrick — a play on the name of a charitable organization for Irish Americans — at St. Michael’s, a church in a poverty-torn part of South Los Angeles. O’Connell would do his comedy act and other people would perform, and the group would raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the St. Michael’s school.

O’Connell, Dakin-Grimm said, was always refining his act.

“Sometimes if you were talking to him on the phone,” she said, “he’d be like, ‘I’ve got to try this one out on you.’”