Chaput is considered a role model by some Catholics and divisive by others.
Perez, 58, chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church and is the first Latino to head an archdiocese that’s not heavily Hispanic (there are Latino archbishops in San Antonio and one in Los Angeles). He was born in Miami, grew up in New Jersey and became a priest in Philadelphia.
“He couldn’t be more different from [Archbishop] Chaput. He’s not a culture warrior of the left or the right,” said Michael Sean Winters, an authority on the U.S. church. He called Perez “Francis’s first legacy appointment” in the United States — because of Perez’s relatively young age and the high profile of the Philadelphia archdiocese.
Some in Philadelphia were thrilled about the changing of the guard, in part because Perez had served as a priest in the region for nearly two decades.
“In addition to speaking Philly’s language, Perez speaks Francis’s language. Literally — as one of few American bishops who can speak to the pope in his native Spanish tongue — and figuratively,” wrote Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Mike Newall, who is Catholic. “Unlike his predecessor, Archbishop Charles Chaput, a staunch conservative gifted with the ability of saying the exact wrong thing at so many times of crisis and challenge, Perez talks about the church as it should be: universal. Chaput seemed at every opportunity to draw a line in the pews: These are the beliefs. You’re either with us or against us. Perez has said the diversity of the church is its greatest strength.”
Perez will lead a challenged archdiocese, wracked in recent years after a grand jury found that leaders, including two cardinals, had covered up the extensive sexual abuse of minors by clergy in the area over four decades. The archdiocese, which includes more than 1 million Catholics across southeastern Pennsylvania, has a strong traditional church culture, with a style that is generally more formal and deferential to clergy and to church-based power.
“Philadelphia is the high-water mark for clericalism in the United States,” Winters said.
Rocco Palmo, a Philadelphia-based church reporter, wrote Wednesday that Chaput had “widely aired his wish to be retired quickly after 32 years as an active prelate, the last eight of them embroiled in attempting to rescue the 1.1 million-member Philly fold from a financial and managerial free-fall — an ongoing plate which now includes an unprecedented Federal investigation into clergy sex-abuse across the entire province (i.e. state) his successor will inherit.”
Chaput praised the announcement. “I cannot think of a better successor to lead this Archdiocese,” he wrote on his Facebook page. He said Perez is “a man who already knows and loves the Church in Philadelphia, and is already known and loved by our priests and people.”
Perez has only led a diocese for less than three years — in Cleveland — so his own leadership record on the topic of sexual abuse is thin. The Associated Press reported Thursday that the Cleveland diocese last year made public a list of 22 previously unidentified priests and other clergy members it said had been credibly accused of sexually abusing minors. In a letter announcing the release of the names, Perez said that a committee assembled by the diocese determined the accusations against the clerics were “more likely than not to be true."
Perez has been a very vocal advocate for immigrants, speaking out against President Trump’s family separations and telling the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “We’ve lost our moral compass.”
“It is with great joy tinged with a sense of sadness that I accept the appointment,” Perez tweeted Thursday. “Joy that I will be returning to serve [Philadelphia], sadness in that I will be leaving [Cleveland].”