Vatican names new leader for Las Vegas Catholics

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Pope Francis, Wednesday named the current Bishop of Helena, Montana to take over the Las Vegas diocese, beginning on May 15.

Bishop George Thomas will replace Joseph Pepe, who has been leading the local Catholic church since 2001.

Thomas takes over a diocese of nearly 750,000 Catholics, roughly 15 times the size of his current diocese in Montana.

“I've been the Bishop of Helena Montana for the last 14 years. Now it's a very different experience.

We have more cows than Catholics,” Thomas said, referring to what will soon be his former home.

His new city, of course, is much different and much bigger.

His church here is roughly 60 percent Hispanic, and the new bishop told me, among his priorities is, “making sure the church is present to the immigrants and to the dreamers, certainly will be a very large ticket item for me.”

Before Helena, Thomas was in Seattle, where, among his missions, was leading that city's Catholic charities, helping the homeless and the hungry.

At today’s announcement was Deacon Thomas Roberts, the President, and CEO of Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada.

“It certainly was heart-warming for me and a relief to know that we have another bishop that has the same compassion for the vulnerable that Bishop Pepe has, and already feel confident that Bishop Thomas feels the same way.”

Thomas was ordained as a priest for the Archdiocese of Seattle in 1976, serving in four different parishes.

While he rose up through the Seattle church ranks, he also maintained his pastoral passion.

“I was the night chaplain for 13 years to the king county jail, which has probably 2,000 or so inmates,” he said.

Pope John Paul is appointed Thomas Bishop of Helena on March 23, 2004.

One huge challenge he faced was the priest sex abuse scandal, which actually bankrupted the diocese of Helena with claims from sex abuse survivors.

“We actually experienced a tsunami with the abuse crisis,” Thomas says. “We had 364 claims.”

Thomas's approach was not to fight survivors but help them heal. “I said to the victim-survivors, in the diocese of Helena you are believed and respected.”

Las Vegas’ outgoing Bishop, Pepe, has served as Las Vegas' Catholic leader since 2001.

The Philadelphia native, 75, plans to remain in Las Vegas. “I’ll be helping out in the churches here and helping the Bishop,” Pepe says.

The Las Vegas diocese was created in 1995, separated that year by the Vatican from Reno, as a result of the tremendous growth that was taking place in Nevada.

Our diocese now encompasses five counties, Clark, Esmerelda, Lincoln, Nye and White Pine, with 32 parishes and six missions.

“Las Vegas diocese is growing by leaps-and-bounds,” the new Bishop told me.

“There’s a pronounced clergy shortage here. I worked closely with the priests of the local church in Helena and we’ve got a strong number of seminarians there, and I would also like to build up in that area.

It’s got immense potential here,” Thomas says, referring to a priority for his new diocese.

Thomas arrives at a time when America grapples with guns, in a city still healing from bullets.

Thomas made clear today he has no problem wading into hot-button issues, applauding Florida students fighting for change after 17 people died in a shooting at their school.

Our new Bishop made clear he will not shy away from the gun debate.

“We need a new day. We need to look at whatever laws are on the books right now and say are they effective or not,” Thomas said.

“Should we allow assault weapons and assault ammunition to be in the hands of ordinary citizens or should that be something that is also looked at on the federal level,” he asked.

That's one issue he'll watch, as he now watches over a new flock.

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