NEW ORLEANS --- A New Orleans native was appointed Friday as the city's 14th archbishop to oversee the city's Roman Catholic churches that were hit hard by damage from Hurricane Katrina.
Archbishop Gregory Aymond had overseen "unprecedented growth" in the Austin, Texas, diocese while he was bishop there, according to a church news release. He was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to replace Archbishop Alfred Hughes, 76, who retires after more than seven years in the post.
The 59-year-old Aymond was born, raised, educated and ordained in New Orleans and is the first native to fill the post, according to the church. He said he was surprised when notified last week he would be leading the archdiocese's 382,000 members in 108 parishes.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would come back here as bishop," he said during a Friday news conference at the local seminary.
Katrina in 2005 did more than $280 million in damage to church property. The city's Catholic community also has been touched by the same issues troubling other dioceses, including the aftermath of years of sex scandals and the unpopular consolidation of parishes and closing of churches for economic reasons.
Both Hughes and Aymond touched on those issues.
Hughes briefly mentioned the sex abuse scandals in recounting the challenges he faced and he acknowledged the hurt many parishioners have felt at the closure of neighborhood churches.
"I want publicly to express my sorrow and beg forgiveness from those who experience continued hurt or also experience anger," he said. "I never wanted in any way to hurt anyone. Obviously, difficult decisions do hurt people in ways we do not want."
Protests have included the January occupation of two churches by former parishioners. Police were called to remove them and two protesters were arrested.
Aymond said he would reach out to those affected by the closures but said he had no plans to "second guess" the consolidation decisions made under Hughes.
Aymond was asked about the case of Brian Matherne, a popular coach and teacher now serving a 30 year prison sentence for child molestation. Aymond's duties included oversight of Catholic schools in the archdiocese when the scandal broke in 1999.
The Matherne case led church officials to re-examine the way such matters are handled after the disclosure that nearly a year before the teacher's arrest, one victim's father alerted the archdiocese that Matherne had molested his son 13 years earlier.
Aymond, noting the church has worked to develop policies to more effectively deal with such cases, said he would be willing to meet with victims in the Matherne case.
After completing his studies at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, Aymond served as a parish priest and high school teacher. He was appointed to the faculty of the seminary in 1981. In 1986, he was appointed the seminary rector, a post he held for 14 years. He was ordained auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New Orleans on January 10, 1997, and he became the bishop of Austin in 2000.
Hughes has served 18 months past the age established by canon law for bishops to submit their letters of retirement. He stayed in the post at the request of the pope, an archdiocese spokeswoman said earlier this year. He said that budget figures to be released soon will show that the archdiocese has balanced its budget after years of post-Katrina deficit spending. He added that, as of Friday, he is no longer the archbishop but will remain as an administrator until Aymond is formally installed at St. Louis Cathedral on Aug. 20.
Hughes was named archbishop in January 2002 after serving as coadjutor archbishop since February 2001.