After 15 years serving the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson, Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas must submit a letter of retirement to Rome by mid-August.

He has no choice. The church’s canon law requires all bishops to submit a letter by the time they turn 75. Kicanas hits that benchmark Aug. 18.

From there, it’s up to Pope Francis to accept or reject the resignation. Usually, the pope accepts.

But that doesn’t mean August heralds the last days for the current Tucson bishop. Retiring bishops usually serve until the pope appoints a replacement. That can take six to eight months — sometimes longer.

Even after a successor is established, Kicanas, a Chicago native, has no plans to live elsewhere.

“I will stay on in the sense that I will be living here in Tucson, and I hope to help the new bishop in any way he finds helpful,” Kicanas said. “I think it will be a new moment in my life, but I’m sure a good one.”

And although Kicanas is at peace with the transition, many will miss him. The diocese serves 450,000 Catholics.

Mayor Jonathan Rothschild has considered gathering community leaders to pen a letter and “just write to the pope and ask for him to give a special dispensation.”

Kicanas can suggest his replacement, though the process includes input from other bishops, a papal representative known as the apostolic nuncio and the Congregation for Bishops. The pope gets the final say.

The diocese would not disclose Kicanas’ current picks.

Beginnings

Kicanas learned of his appointment as coadjutor bishop to the Tucson diocese on a Friday the 13th in 2001.

As an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Chicago at the time, Kicanas was giving a talk for pastors and principals when somebody slipped him a note saying the apostolic nuncio had called.

“And, well, you know he doesn’t call about the weather,” Kicanas joked. “I finished the talk and dialed the number, and he said, ‘Oh, Bishop, I’m happy to inform you’ — and of course your ears perk up — ‘that you have been appointed coadjutor bishop in Tucson.’ At which point I said, ‘Pardon me?’ ”

Kicanas had visited Tucson twice before, once on a personal retreat at the Redemptorist Renewal Center and once when U.S. bishops gathered here.

“I asked the apostolic nuncio, ‘Well, are there any issues (in Tucson)?’ And he said, ‘Oh no, no. Everything is going fine,’ ” Kicanas said.

A report he received soon after said otherwise.

Trouble in Tucson

Kicanas was installed as coadjutor bishop in Tucson in January 2002 to serve under Bishop Manuel D. Moreno, who was battling prostate cancer and in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease.

Moreno retired early, at age 72, in 2003. As coadjutor, Kicanas immediately became Tucson’s sixth bishop.

Before Kicanas’ arrival, the diocese had paid $155,000 to settle claims from eight people who reported being sexually abused by diocesan personnel, Star archives show.

The following years would bring a $14 million settlement with 10 men who described abuse by four local clergy members from the 1960s to the 1980s, the sentencing of three priests to prison for sexually abusing children, and 22 lawsuits that drove the diocese to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2004.

“We were faced with abuse allegations, and we had no idea where the end was,” Kicanas said. “The concern was: How do we treat people equally and fairly so that the resources were available to help anybody who would come forward? And that’s when we went into bankruptcy.”

The Tucson diocese followed the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon in the unprecedented move. At the time, plaintiffs expressed concern that the move was a copout.

The reorganization process took a year and involved the sale of diocese properties and creation of a $22.2 million settlement pool for victims both known and unknown, Star archives show.

“It was always about acknowledging the victims and trying to bring about a fair and appropriate conclusion,” said Monsignor Al Schifano, a retired priest at St. Thomas the Apostle Church and vocations director for seminarians.

Schifano joined the priesthood late in life, leaving his position as a senior vice president at Sundt Construction Inc. He used that experience to help Kicanas during the bankruptcy.

Lynne Cadigan, who represented most of the claimants along with fellow attorney Kim Williamson, acknowledged Kicanas’ competency and respect for the victims.

“The most important thing for the victims was a fast resolution so they could get on with their healing and a significant enough apology in the form of payment,” Cadigan said. “What Kicanas managed to do was work with the victims and the lawyers and have a quick resolution, which the victims appreciate, but they understand it’s not justice.”

Kicanas believes his position as a newcomer to Tucson helped him to make tough calls.

“It was very painful for (Moreno) having to address the sexual abuse issue because he knew these priests. Being an outsider was helpful because you could see things with a little bit more objectivity,” Kicanas said.

During those years, the diocese also put in place a new code of conduct and created an office to oversee the protection of children, adolescents and adults.

David Clohessy, the director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), wrote in an email that “Kicanas was the first of only 30 U.S. bishops to post predators’ names on his website,” though Clohessy countered the praise with a critique of the bankruptcy as a means of “protecting secrets and clerical careers.”

The list posted on the Diocese of Tucson’s website now includes the names and assignments of 39 clergy and church personnel “credibly accused.”

“Kicanas has been the leader from day one that this is not just something that we are going to do for a little while,” Schifano said, emphasizing the bishop’s campaign to restore credibility. “We have to do this forever and stay alert and on top of this and make sure fingerprints are taken and reports are made to make sure this never happens again.”

A new chapter

After the bankruptcy and the sale of diocese property, Kicanas and other church leaders launched a capital campaign in 2007 to raise $28 million.

Called “Our Faith, Our Hope, Our Future,” the campaign went toward the purchase of new land, renovations of St. Augustine Cathedral, schools and religious programs and funding for retired priests, Kicanas said.

The Diocese of Tucson stretches across nine counties in Arizona and includes 78 parishes and 25 schools.

Southwestern dioceses, unlike those in other parts of the country, are growing, he said.

Beyond Tucson

During his time in Tucson, Kicanas has developed a national reputation and has met several popes, including Pope Francis.

“Bishops have their own organizations to run, their local diocese, yet they make this commitment on a national level,” said Helen Osman, who ran the communications department for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) for eight years. “It takes them away from the diocese, but I think at the same time, it’s a point of pride for people locally, because they know their local bishop is representing them.”

Kicanas has served nationally on the boards of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate and the now-closed National Pastoral Life Center and as a member of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. He is also former chair of the Catholic Relief Services Board and former vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is now vice chancellor of the Catholic Extension Society.

Kicanas was expected to become president of the Catholic Bishops Conference in 2010 after several years as vice president, as is typical, but opponents campaigned against him.

“They were like, ‘Maybe he is a little too progressive,’ and that is the fear they tried to raise,” Osman said, adding that the snub did not honor Kicanas’ service or integrity. She praised his commitment to the local diocese.

During the same time period, Star archives indicate that victims’ rights groups criticized Kicanas for possible knowledge about misconduct by Chicago priest Daniel McCormack, who studied at Mundelein Seminary in Illinois, where Kicanas was appointed rector in 1984. McCormack was later arrested and defrocked.

Kicanas received media scrutiny again in 2014 when court documents suggested he may also have known in the 1980s about inappropriate behavior by a second Chicago priest at Quigley Preparatory Seminary South, where Kicanas once worked.

In both instances, Kicanas told the Star that based on the information available to him at the time, he did not know about abuse committed by either man.

A reputation
for social justice

Deacon Ken Moreland at Most Holy Trinity Parish has heard the occasional critique from people who consider Kicanas “too liberal,” but Moreland chalks that up to the bishop’s passion for social justice.

“In Arizona, most people think of Bishop Kicanas as a passionate leader on immigration matters in particular and being welcoming to the stranger and reaching out to migrants and refugees,” said Ron Johnson, executive director of the Arizona Catholic Conference.

Mayor Rothschild pointed to the bishop’s leadership two years ago when migrants arriving from Central America overwhelmed Tucson’s Greyhound bus station.

“One of the things that made him great in Tucson was that he really understood the community and understood that it includes, here in Tucson for the church, a focus on assisting immigrants and refugees and our Hispanic and Native American populations,” Rothschild said. “He really got immediately the role culture plays in our community as a whole.”

During his tenure as bishop, Kicanas has reached out to leaders of other faith traditions. The Rev. Grady Scott of Grace Temple Baptist Church said Kicanas has worked to “bridge the gaps between the Catholic Church and evangelical church.”

“He is a great believer in, ‘If there is an issue, let’s bring people together and hear what they’re concerned about and try to respond to it,’ ” said Monsignor Raul Trevizo, vicar general and pastor at St. John the Evangelist Parish. “They might say things we prefer not to hear, but they need to say what they have to say, and we have to listen.”

A pastor again

Whenever Deacon Moreland drives Kicanas to one of the diocese’s remote parishes, the bishop hunkers down for some paperwork.

“And if we travel in the fall, he is usually filling out about 5,000 Christmas cards,” Moreland said. “He has a Christmas card list that is unbelievable. He signs each one of them and puts a note in them.”

Kicanas has a knack for personal touches.

“He is always present and looks people in the eye and holds their hand and listens to what they have to say,” said Peg Harmon, CEO of Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a pregnant teen or an incarcerated adult or an immigrant traveling through or a homeless guy on the street.”

The Rev. Scott remembers seeing Kicanas on a plane not long after the two men had met. Kicanas immediately remembered him.

“I don’t know where he gets all of his energy,” Monsignor Schifano said. “He is tireless. And he remembers everybody’s names. It drives me crazy.”

Kicanas, a vegetarian, also wakes up early to exercise.

In retirement, he doesn’t plan on slowing down but will instead serve at a local parish — still undecided — and continue his social justice work, specifically in the areas of immigration, prisons, poverty and drug addiction.

Issues for the new bishop to address will include the diocese’s current priest shortage and the ongoing restoration of Cathedral Square downtown. The diocese hopes to secure funding to transform Marist College and the Bishop Manuel D. Moreno Pastoral Center into a community center and affordable housing for seniors. The project also includes the construction of a four-story complex for offices and an event center.

Leaving behind administrative work makes time for “hearing confessions and celebrating Mass — the things that you really went into the priesthood to do,” Kicanas said.

“I’m sure it’s a shock when one day you’re the bishop of the diocese and the next day you’re the bishop emeritus, which means you don’t have any real authority or responsibility,” he said. “But there is always work to be done.”

Contact reporter Johanna Willett at jwillett@tucson.com or 573-4357. On Twitter: @JohannaWillett