Bishop Armando Ochoa talks about the future of the El Paso Diocese

The future of Catholic Diocese of El Paso

EL PASO, Texas - There is great change in the Roman Catholic Church.

Pope Benedict XVI's papacy comes to an end Thursday.

Thursday is also the first day Oscar Cantu will be the new bishop of the Las Cruces diocese.

Bishop Armando X. Ochoa, who served as the El Paso Diocese bishop for 15 years before being reassigned to the Diocese of Fresno, will be visiting Las Cruces for the event.

Ochoa left El Paso more than a year ago, and has since acted as the Apostolic Administrator for the Diocese of El Paso.

Essentially, Ochoa is in charge of two catholic communities in two different states.

Between conference calls each Monday, and visits to El Paso every few months, Ochoa told ABC-7 he's kept busy.

"It really is an unresolved challenge, and I think everyone in El Paso and Fresno are praying for my successor, whenever he may be named," Ochoa said.

But the date of the new Bishop's naming has been left unanswered.

Now with the naming of a new Pope on the top of the Vatican's list, and 11 U.S. cities waiting for a bishop to be named, the question grows larger.

"The Pope would have to do a little catching up-- the new man on board-- so it is an apprehension because I was thinking, I think many of us were thinking, by Spring," he said. "We probably might have had the name of the new successor."

The lack of a bishop in El Paso is not the only struggle the Diocese faces.

Priest shortages around the U.S. are another worry.

"God forbid a death, or illness, or resignation," Ochoa said regarding the status of priests in El Paso.

Ochoa said priests in El Paso are actively recruiting for candidates for the Priesthood, in an effort to quell the shortage.

And while there have been recent deaths of popular El Paso priests, like Father Rick Matty, Ochoa told ABC-7 he doesn't believe the shortage should be a major concern for the city.

Ochoa did add that if a parish were to become priestless, Sunday services would likely continue or parishioners would be asked to drive an extra 10 to 20 minutes to visit a neighboring parish.

But the lack of priests leading to cancelled services is not something El Pasoans should worry over, Ochoa said. It is an issue primarily seen in rural outlying communities, he added.

Bringing visiting priests to El Paso is an option, according to Ochoa, but not the best answer he said.

"I've always been a little apprehensive about the alleged quote first world countries robbing potential seminaries of priests from developing countries, Africa, Asia," Ochoa said. "And that really isn't the answer. I really believe the Lord continues to offer vocations to young men in our own backyard." 

Although a new bishop has not been chosen, Ochoa told ABC-7 he believes his successor will have a lot to work with in the community.

"Going to El Paso, Texas, one of the things that really struck me in the border region was really the Catholicity of our people," Ochoa said. "We are so strongly influenced by our Hispanic brothers and sisters across the border that the Catholic culture is still alive and well."

When asked what Ochoa believed the Church needed to remedy in society, Ochoa immediately answered: "I think if anything we need to return to the nuclear family."
"I think with the breakdown of the family our kids are, the grandchildren, we're seeing day in and day out not only in the classes of religious education but in our public schools and yes, even in our catholic schools, the products of broken marriages and failed marriages," Ochoa said.

Ochoa offered further involvement in the marriage process as resolution, including pre-marital counseling and early-marital assistance through things such as retreats and meetings.

Ochoa also commented on Pope Benedict XVI's retirement. He said he was proud Benedict knew his health well enough to resign when the time was right. 

Ochoa added that 10 months ago, while visiting the Vatican, he had noticed the frailty of Benedict. Ochoa said the Pope had mentioned retiring was up for consideration in the past.

In addition to commenting on the future of the El Paso diocese and a new Pope, Ochoa told ABC-7 he could not discuss his pending lawsuit involving the Rev. Michael Rodriguez.

The lawsuit, which was filed in Jan. 2012, alleges that Rodriguez was funneling church money to personal accounts.

In the lawsuit, Ochoa alleges that Rodriguez solicited donations to "construct a new grotto, to renovate the exterior and interior of the church, to buy new church bells, and to repair and renovate the kitchen and garage of the parish hall." The document states Rodriguez broke church policy when he didn't deposit the donations in the right church account, and instead put the money in another church account not usually audited by the Diocese. He then transferred the money to personal accounts he opened at Government Employees Credit Union ("GECU"), the lawsuit alleges.

According to the lawsuit, Rodriguez deposited the money in bank accounts he kept secret -- and the money, in the event of his death, would go to his mother.The money in those accounts ballooned to more than a $250,000, according to the suit.

The lawsuit also implicates the priest's brother, David Rodriguez, in the alleged scheme. Ochoa alleges Rodriguez, through his brother, on two occasions, wrote a $20,000 check to construction companies. The checks allegedly came from the church account with the church donations.

Rodriguez would then, through his brother, David, ask the construction companies to write him back a check of the same amount, according to the lawsuit. No construction work was ever performed by the companies, the lawsuit alleges.

"I never asked a construction company. Now, I did work for a construction company and there were times when i had taken envolopes from father to (them), but that's all. I did not ask anyone to write any checks. That's not true," said David Rodriguez, Fr. Rodriguez's brother, in Jan. 2012.

The Diocese recovered all but $27,000 of the money

Father Rodriguez was very outspoken during the city's domestic partner benefits debate. He has publicly condemned what he called the gay lifestyle.

Ochoa transferred Father Rodriguez to Presidio, Texas for violating church policy.

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