VATICAN CITY (AP) - Archbishop Jose Gomez was named Tuesday to succeed the archbishop of Los Angeles, the Holy See's most significant acknowledgment to date of the growing importance of Latinos in the American church.
The appointment is also evidence that Pope Benedict XVI wants a strong defender of orthodoxy leading the largest diocese in the nation: Gomez, 58, is an archbishop of Opus Dei, the conservative movement favored by the Vatican.
The Mexican-born Gomez was named coadjutor for Los Angeles, which means he will take over the archdiocese when the current archbishop, Cardinal Roger Mahony retires on Feb. 27 next year, his 75th birthday.
The appointment of Gomez, who now leads the Archdiocese of San Antonio, puts him in line to become the highest-ranking Latino in the American Catholic hierarchy and the first Latino cardinal in the U.S.
Hispanics comprise 70 percent of the 5 million Catholics in the Los Angeles archdiocese, and more than one-third of the 65 million Catholics in the United States. In a separate nod to Latino Catholics, Benedict in 2007 named the first cardinal for heavily Latino Texas, Archbishop Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston.
"This just recognizes the reality on the ground that the center of gravity of U.S. Catholicism is moving to the South and West and is becoming increasingly Hispanic," said David Gibson, a Catholic author who writes about religion for PoliticsDaily.com.
Mahony, who was dogged by the clergy sex abuse scandal, developed a reputation during his quarter-century tenure in Los Angeles as a liberal-leaning leader and was often the target of Catholic conservatives. Under church rules, bishops submit their resignations at age 75, but the pope often asks prelates to stay in their posts for several years more.
Mahony, nicknamed "Hollywood" because he was born there, is the longest-serving U.S. cardinal since the Second Vatican Council, the modernizing reform conferences of the 1960s.
Gomez was scheduled to appear at a morning news conference in the Los Angeles cathedral. The pope will likely name Gomez a cardinal in the future, given that Los Angeles is such a large and important archdiocese whose leader has traditionally worn a red hat.
The new coadjutor said in a statement that he was grateful for the appointment and the trust that the Vatican's nuncio had in him. "I will try with all my strength to earn that trust," he said.
Gomez will have to oversee the fallout from the abuse scandal that came to light during Mahony's tenure.
In 2007, Mahony agreed to a record-setting $660 million settlement with more than 500 alleged victims of clergy abuse.
A federal grand jury is also investigating how the Archdiocese of Los Angeles handled claims of abuse, and has subpoenaed several witnesses, including a former Los Angeles priest convicted of child molestation and a monsignor who served as vicar for clergy under Mahony.
Mahony's attorney has said the cardinal is not a target of the investigation.
Gomez will face scrutiny of his own track record on responding to abuse claims in his previous posts. The abuse crisis, which had eased in the U.S., has gained new attention because of a flood of new cases in Europe.
Gomez was born in Monterrey, Mexico, and studied theology at the University of Navarra in Spain. He was ordained an Opus Dei priest in 1978 and worked in the Galveston-Houston area and in Denver before being named archbishop of San Antonio in 2004.
Opus Dei was founded by Saint Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer in Spain in 1928. Escriva held that sainthood could be achieved by anyone, from homemaker to professional, by carrying out everyday tasks extraordinarily well.
The movement, which enjoys a unique status at the Vatican, was depicted as a murderous cult in Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code," which Opus members and the Vatican have denounced as defaming the church.
Hispanics are the fastest-growing group in the American Catholic church. More than 50 percent of U.S. Catholics under age 25 are of Latino heritage, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.