Column: Bishop David O’Connell restored my faith in faith

When I learned that Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell had been shot dead in his home, I felt like I was turned to stone. I stood in the home he had blessed ready to embark on a long-planned journey with my youngest daughter.

Years ago when I told him I was pregnant with her, he laughed. “A third your age? Sure, you’re still a Catholic at heart.”

Over the years, O’Connell had done his best to lure me back into the church. Although it never quite worked, he did achieve something more wonderful: He restored my faith in faith.

I don’t know many people who have lived a life of loving service without that love eventually turning bitter. Or without turning from service to power. But I knew David O’Connell. Not good enough to understand why someone would kill him – as I write this a man connected to a woman who may have worked at O’Connell’s home has been arrested – but enough to know that it is a great loss to those who knew him and to Los Angeles.

A little over 20 years ago I was asked by an editor of this newspaper to write a kind of everyday story about “an ordinary priest”. After decades of victim-shaming, blockades, and outright lies, the Catholic Church in general, and the Diocese of Los Angeles in particular, was finally forced to admit that a staggering number of priests had sexually abused children. In many cases, church officials were aware of the abuse and chose to protect the criminal priests rather than their victims.

The story I was to write would deal with how a non-criminal priest, a supposedly good priest, was getting by during this time.

I was not enthusiastic about this task. As a lifelong Catholic, I had recently stopped attending Mass in my parish. The seemingly endless revelations of sexual abuse sickened and infuriated me. I had grown up surrounded by priests, some of whom were close family friends whom I had been taught to treat with reverence and respect.

Like many others, I felt betrayed by the code of silence that had allowed so much abuse. Numerically, it seemed impossible that none of “my” priests knew of or were involved in the Church’s systematic cover-up (and indeed, one was eventually arrested and convicted of abuse).

I wasn’t really interested in dating anymore or worrying about how they were getting along.

But it was an order, not a request, so I made a list of possibilities and chose then-Monsignor David O’Connell. Irish and fluent in Spanish, he pastored churches — Ascension and St. Francis Xavier Cabrini, both in South Central Los Angeles — and had helped bring calm to his congregations after the 1992 riots.

Hardly common, but at least unstudied. (When I told him this years later, he asked me if I could put it on a t-shirt.)

When he returned my call, he was a bit suspicious himself. He asked if I had found him through the PR agency at the time – Archbishop Roger Mahony; O’Connell wasn’t interested in being part of Mahony’s still well-oiled publicity machine. I assured him I hadn’t and he agreed to speak to me.

For three days I followed him through his various ministries – the masses, the school meetings, the prayer groups, the private meetings with parishioners, the public meetings with local leaders. I watched as he comforted the mourners, counseled the struggling, laughed with the children, and ranted about the hopelessness that took the lives of so many under his care. The week before, he had conducted three funerals for young men killed by gang violence.

I told myself to keep my mind and eyes wide open; I didn’t want to be tricked again by someone who believed that a child molester should be treated prayerfully rather than turned over to the police.

In the end, my heart opened all by itself.

Maybe it was the Irish accent, or the dog he adopted, or the fact that he saw prayer as activism and activism as prayer. He began his day before dawn, finished it after midnight, and filled almost every hour with people, all kinds of people, in all emotional states, needs, and graces.

After spending eight hours with him, I was so exhausted I could barely drive home, and I had done nothing but watch him work and ask him questions.

Including and repeating why he remained part of an institution so obviously flawed and corrupt on many levels. He agreed with both, and his anger at Mahony and the Church for trying to defend the untenable flared up harshly and often. He found it ridiculous to limit the priesthood to celibate men; Women should be ordained and the minister should be allowed to marry.

“If there had been a couple of parents running things,” he said, “none of this would have happened.”

But he loved being a priest because, very simply, but very deeply, he believed that we would find salvation through the teachings of Jesus Christ. Not just in heaven, but right here in Los Angeles, where people in power had to follow Christ’s direction to treat everyone as we would be treated.

He was, as many said in the shocking vacuum that followed his death, a peacemaker who wanted not only to help the immigrants, the poor, the starving, and those plagued by violence and crime, but also to fix the systems that were causing the problems.

But he was a priest first, an activist second. Or maybe he didn’t care, a mystery of multiple identities like the Holy Trinity. Not that he was particularly holy. “Oh look, it’s him, the rock star,” he once said to me, eyes sparkling, when a well-known leader from another church showed up at a church leaders’ meeting. “He must have heard there was a reporter here.”

I wrote my play. O’Connell called to thank me and to ask if I had changed my mind about going back to the fair. I told him I was going to an episcopal church and he moaned, “Ah, you’re breaking my heart.”

We spoke to each other for years, off and on. When we moved I asked him to bless our new home. Occasionally we would have lunch; he invited me to meetings, called me to keep me informed about one or the other local initiative. One day he accompanied me and my then two young children to the park and laughed as my son jumped into a small creek and my daughter performed an ass-wagging dance for every person we passed.

“Whenever I think being a priest is difficult,” he said, “I spend some time with my parents.”

But he was never my priest, nor was I his parishioner, or even close to the community he ministered to. We were both busy people, and conversations became less and less frequent. When he was appointed auxiliary bishop, I called him to congratulate him.

“No thanks,” he laughed, explaining that when people read his quotes about female and married priests, people told him he’d ruined his chances of advancement. “But here we are,” he said. “It has to get better.” Column: Bishop David O’Connell restored my faith in faith

Alley Einstein

Alley Einstein is a USTimesPost U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Alley Einstein joined USTimesPost in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing

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