LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — The new leader of the nation's Roman Catholic bishops says he will draw on his years as a pastor to guide American bishops as they attempt to shift focus under Pope Francis, who wants more emphasis on compassion than on divisive social issues such as gay marriage.
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Kentucky was elected Tuesday as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a role that makes him the U.S church's spokesman on national issues and a representative of American bishops to the Vatican and the pope.
Kurtz, a 67-year-old Pennsylvania native and a former bishop of Knoxville, Tenn., pledged after his election Tuesday to focus the bishops' work on reaching out to the poor and underserved, a mission emphasized by the new pope.
"The challenge for us in welcoming people and most especially serving people who are voiceless and vulnerable, spans right across the board from our work in immigration (to) our work in serving people who are poor," Kurtz said.
Louisville church leaders who have worked closely with Kurtz said he has a deep well of energy and isn't afraid to use social media or a rudimentary understanding of Spanish to communicate with the faithful.
"I think this is a great recognition of his gifts," said the Rev. J. Mark Spalding, pastor at Louisville's Holy Trinity Church. "He's got a gift for reaching out."
But Kurtz has also used his time as Louisville Archbishop to take strong stands on the kind of hot-button cultural issues the new pope says have occupied too much of the church's focus. Since coming to Louisville, he has joined praying protesters in front of an abortion clinic, donated $1,000 of archdiocese money to a same-sex marriage repeal effort in Maine and joined other Catholic leaders in denouncing a federal requirement for employers to provide health insurance that covers artificial contraceptives.
The Rev. William Hammer, pastor of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral in nearby Bardstown, said Kurtz has been outspoken on those issues because "he believes in them."
"At the same time, I do know he has very much been actively involved in a kind of ministry of presence, and going out to people on the margins," said Hammer, who is president of the archdiocese priests council. "I do think he brings a pastoral approach rather than simply an intellectual approach. That's what I think is my reading of what Pope Francis is calling for."
Since his election as pope in March, Francis has called on Catholic leaders to make a pastoral connection with the faithful and emphasize mercy over divisive social issues like abortion and gay marriage. Kurtz, who has a master's degree in social work, said he will draw on his dozen years as a church pastor in Pennsylvania to reach out in an inviting warm, way, as the pope has asked.
Kurtz has taken to social media to speak to younger Catholics, attracting more than 6,200 Twitter followers, a number that's sure to grow as his profile rises with the national bishops organization.
He's also improving his Spanish-speaking skills. Spalding recalled an occasion when Kurtz led a 5 a.m. service at a local church recognizing the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and then afterward mingled and spoke with hundreds of Latinos who had attended.
"He went around to every table, and with his knowledge that he would admit is basic knowledge of Spanish, he spoke to every single table before he left," Spalding said. "First of all, they were impressed. Second, they just truly experienced a pastor, a priest reaching out to them, a man of the church, letting the church be brought with him to them."
Kurtz is not without critics in his archdiocese. Among them are victims of clergy abuse who successfully sued the Louisville archdiocese and reached a $25 million settlement in 2003. The agreement included 242 plaintiffs.
Some of those victims who remain outspoken on clergy abuse issues said Kurtz hasn't done enough to heal the lingering wounds from the scandal.
"To me there's no real outreach to survivors," said Jeff Koenig, a member of the Louisville chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "We had to approach him, he has never reached out to us."
Koenig said archdiocese officials have offered the survivors group a brief meeting with Kurtz, but they have sought a longer interaction.
At Tuesday's bishops meeting, Kurtz won just over half the votes in a field of 10 candidates. He succeeds New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who is ending a three-year term. The new vice president is Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, Texas.
Associated Press Religion Writer Rachel Zoll contributed to this report.