The pope appointed Archbishop Jose Gomez Tuesday as the next head of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, a move that underscores the growing importance of Latinos in the American church and could spotlight the nation's largest diocese in the coming debate over immigration reform.
The appointment was also evidence that Pope Benedict XVI wants a strong defender of orthodoxy at the helm in Los Angeles, which is nearly three-quarters Hispanic. 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 current archbishop Cardinal Roger Mahony retires next Feb. 27, his 75th birthday.
Gomez, who now leads the Archdiocese of San Antonio, appeared at the downtown Los Angeles cathedral, taking most questions in Spanish and vowing to make comprehensive immigration reform a priority.
He noted the first four bishops of the Los Angeles territory were Hispanic, and his appointment is a return to the church's roots.
"It's one of the great Catholic communities in the world," he said. "Los Angeles, like no other city in the world, has the global face of the Catholic church."
The appointment of Gomez puts him in line to become the highest-ranking Latino in the American Catholic hierarchy and the first Latino cardinal in the U.S.
The leader of the large and important Los Angeles archdiocese has traditionally been a cardinal and worn a red hat.
Mahony said he was "grateful to God for this gift of a Hispanic archbishop" and said he pressed for a Hispanic replacement during a 2008 audience with the pope.
"This is truly an epic moment in the life of the church in this country," Mahony said.
He also said it would be wrong for observers to conclude Gomez was a conservative because he is a priest of Opus Dei.
In 2008, Gomez publicly expressed concern when St. Mary's, the oldest Catholic university in Texas and the Southwest, allowed then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, an abortion rights supporter, to hold a campaign event on campus.
"In fact, these labels of 'conservative' and 'liberal' are really unhelpful in the life of the church," Mahony said. "We are all called to a deep relationship with Jesus Christ, and I can attest that both of us share a common commitment to Christ and to the church."
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 Archbishop Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston as the first cardinal for heavily Latino Texas.
Gomez was recently elected chair of the Committee on Migrants and Refugee Services for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and will be the voice of the Catholic church on immigration reform, said Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.
"This man is not just a Hispanic, but he was born in Mexico, so he's an immigrant," Reese said.
Mahony developed a reputation during his quarter-century tenure in Los Angeles as a liberal-leaning leader and was often the target of Catholic conservatives.
He also was dogged by the clergy sex abuse scandal that has eased in the U.S. but gained new attention because of a flood of new cases in Europe and accusations that Benedict helped cover up the actions of pedophile priests to save the church's reputation.
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 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 was not a target of the investigation.
Gomez will have to oversee fallout from the sex abuse scandal in Southern California while facing scrutiny of his own record on responding to claims in his previous posts.
Victim support groups renewed claims Tuesday that Gomez was unresponsive to their concerns about the handling of several clergy abuse cases involving members of separate religious orders.
Church officials have previously said appropriate actions were taken by those orders against the priests.
Gomez defended his record on Tuesday.
"If there are priests who have been accused, I need to know about it because every report of abuse is taken seriously in the Diocese of San Antonio," he said.
The abuse crisis did not factor in Gomez's tenure in Denver. By the time allegations started coming to light in 2005, Gomez had moved onto Texas. The Denver archdiocese faced roughly 35 lawsuits involving claims that dated back decades.
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 by carrying out everyday tasks extraordinarily well.
The movement 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.
Associated Press Religion Writer Rachel Zoll in New York and Associated Press Writers Nicole Winfield at the Vatican, Michelle Roberts in San Antonio and Jim Anderson in Denver contributed to this report.
© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.