As an auxiliary bishop in the nation's most populous Roman Catholic archdiocese, Gabino Zavala was an outspoken advocate for immigration rights, prison reforms and better conditions for the working poor.
Now parishioners and church officials in the region where the popular Zavala grew up struggled to come to grips with the announcement of his resignation and revelation that he fathered two children, a violation of canon laws of celibacy for priests.
Zavala, 60, who once urged Catholic media to report scandals such as clergy sex abuse "in a spirit of love and mercy," had his resignation accepted Wednesday by Pope Benedict XVI. Roman Catholic canon law permits bishops to step down earlier than the normal retirement age of 75 if they are sick or otherwise unfit for office.
"This is unexpected, sad and disorienting news for many people who know and like Bishop Zavala," said Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. "Remember, he was raised here. He has deep roots in Los Angeles and so he's very well-known here."
Tamberg said he knew nothing about Zavala's affair except that it involved consenting adults and that no church funds were used.
A message left at a Hacienda Heights telephone number for a Gabino Zavala was not immediately returned Wednesday.
Zavala was one of five auxiliary bishops in the archdiocese and was the primary pastoral and liturgical administrator for 66 churches in the San Gabriel region east of Los Angeles, Tamberg said. Archbishop Jose Gomez has selected someone to handle those duties until the Vatican can appoint a replacement.
Zavala informed the archbishop last month that he had fathered two children who live with their mother in another state, Gomez said in a letter to the archdiocese's approximately 5 million Catholics. The archbishop said Zavala told him that he had submitted his resignation to the pope.
"Since that time, he has not been in ministry and will be living privately," the archbishop said in the letter, which was posted on a Catholic blog.
Tamberg did not know the children's ages or gender but revealed that they are not twins _ indicating Zavala and the woman had more than a passing relationship.
"The archdiocese has reached out to the mother and children to provide spiritual care as well as funding to assist the children with college costs. The family's identity is not known to the public, and I wish to respect their right to privacy," the archbishop wrote.
Roman Catholic priests are required to be celibate, though Eastern rite priests can be married and married Anglican priests who convert can become Catholic priests.
Zavala was born in Guerrero, Mexico, but grew up in Los Angeles. He was ordained in 1977 and was assigned to Our Lady of Guadalupe, a church in the heavily Mexican-American East Los Angeles area. He was appointed an auxiliary bishop in 1994.
A handful of other priests have quit their post over sexual relationships, including: Florida priest Alberto Cutie, who resigned in 2009 and married his then-girlfriend; Auxiliary Bishop James McCarthy of New York, who resigned in 2002 after the archdiocese was alerted about his affairs with women; and Archbishop Robert Sanchez of Santa Fe, N.M., who resigned in 1993 after confessing relationships with women.
The late Archbishop Eugene Marino of Atlanta resigned in 1990 when his relationship with a parishioner was made public; the woman said she and the archbishop had secretly married.
AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll contributed from New York.