Local Catholic community mourns loss of bishop

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Stockton began mourning on Tuesday when Bishop Emeritus Stephen Blaire, 77, died after a prolonged illness. The fifth bishop of the diocese, he passed away at his retirement residence at Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Modesto.

The 12th of 14 children, Blaire was born in Los Angeles and raised in the San Fernando Valley where he attended Queen of Angels High School Seminary. He then attended St. John’s College and Seminary in Camarillo, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in scholastic philosophy and his master’s in secondary school administration.

After being ordained as a priest in 1967, Blaire worked at several Catholic high schools as a teacher and later an administrator. He was consecrated as a bishop in 1990, and from 1995 to 1999 he served as Regional Bishop of Our Lady of the Angels Pastoral Region.

Blaire was appointed bishop of the Stockton Diocese in 1999, where he remained until his retirement on Jan. 23, 2018. He then served as Bishop Emeritus, helping with projects such as the Whole Person Care Initiative and raising money for the Retired Priest Fund.

During his time as bishop of the Stockton Diocese, Blaire served on various committees within the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops including the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, the Pastoral Practices Committee and the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

Within the California Catholic Conference, Blaire served as chair of the Legislation and Public Policy Committee, chairman for the Ad Hoc Committee on Environmental Stewardship and a member of the Religious Liberty Committee.

Jose Lopez, director of the diocese’s Hispanic Youth and Migrant Ministry, remembered Blaire as being especially supportive of migrant farmworkers.

“He went with the farmworkers to celebrate mass in the camps, outside,” Lopez said.

Lopez also recalled how Blaire supported Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival, and denounced immigration policies that the late bishop viewed as unjust.

“He was supporting people without documents,” Lopez said. “He was the hope for them all the time.”

In addition to opening an office for the Migrant Ministry, Lopez said, Blaire also worked to integrate various ethnic communities within the diocese.

“He cared for all communities, not only for the Hispanic communities but he tried to be there with all the communities,” Lopez said. “He told us all the time, we are to serve people outside the church.”

Blaire's time with the Stockton Diocese was also marked by controversy stemming from the diocese’s handling of sexual abuse claims levied at priests.

“The glowing obituaries of Bishop Stephen Blaire fail to mention, much less explain, the sordid history of child sexual abuse within the Stockton Diocese which continued under his watch,” attorney John Manly said in a press release. Manly’s law firm, Manly, Stewart and Finaldi, claims to have represented more than 150 victims of clergy sexual abuse in California and hundreds of others throughout the U.S.

“Bishop Blaire did far more than ignore many accusations of child molestation by priests under his supervision, he aggressively worked to silence victims and cover-up the crimes of perpetrators,” Manly said.

“In the case of Father Michael Kelly, he unnecessarily put the victim, my client, through the hell of a jury trial. After being found liable by the jury, Father Kelly fled the country and remains a fugitive. ... Under Blaire’s leadership, the Stockton Diocese was driven into bankruptcy by 34 claims of child sexual abuse by 11 priests. That is not a legacy to celebrate.”

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