LOS ANGELES (AP) — A Catholic bishop in Southern California was shot and killed Saturday just blocks from a church, a slaying of a longtime priest hailed as a “peacemaker” that’s stunned the Los Angeles religious community, authorities said.
Detectives are investigating the death of Bishop David O’Connell as a homicide, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Authorities have not said whether the bishop was targeted in the shooting or if his religion was a factor in the killing. The sheriff’s department would not say how or specifically where his body was discovered. The shooter — or shooters — remain at-large.
O’Connell, 69, had been a priest for 45 years and was a native of Ireland, according to Angelus News, the archdiocese’s news outlet. Pope Francis had named him one of several auxiliary bishops of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles — the largest in the country — in 2015.
O’Connell worked in South Los Angeles for years and focused on gang intervention, Angelus News reported. He later sought to broker peace between residents and law enforcement following the violent 1992 uprising after a jury acquitted four white LA police officers in the beating of Rodney King, a Black man.
Nearly two decades later, O’Connell brought the San Gabriel Valley community together to rebuild a mission there after an arson attack and in recent years spearheaded Catholic efforts in the region to work with immigrant children and families from Central America.
O’Connell was found in Hacienda Heights around 1 p.m. Saturday with a gunshot wound. Sheriff’s deputies were called to the area — just blocks from the St. John Vianney Catholic Church, which is part of O’Connell’s archdiocese — on a report of a medical emergency.
Paramedics pronounced him dead at the scene, the sheriff’s department said. The archdiocese said O’Connell lived in Hacienda Heights — an unincorporated community about 20 miles (30 kilometers) east of downtown Los Angeles — but it was not immediately clear whether he was found at his home or elsewhere.
Masses at churches across the region were dedicated to O’Connell on Sunday. Neighbors and parishioners left flowers and candles and prayed the rosary next to police tape in Hacienda Heights. About 50 people prayed and sang in a vigil Sunday afternoon near part of the neighborhood surrounded by crime scene tape.
“I’ve been crying for two days, every time I think of him,” said Ramona Torres, who has been a lector in her church for more than 30 years and would often read at Masses that O’Connell was conducting.
Gabriela Gil first met O’Connell when she was pregnant with her youngest child after a Catholic school Mass.
“I asked him if he would pray over my belly,” she told The Associated Press as she and her family paid their respects at the crime scene.
A mother of seven, Gil would talk to O’Connell about her sons and daughters and her faith over the years. “I’ve never ever felt more understood by anyone in this world,” she said, adding that she originally thought he had died of a heart attack or some medical emergency.
News of his killing stunned her — just last year, O’Connell had presided over her son’s confirmation.
“I saw him in the parking lot before the Mass started and he was just going out for a little walk, praying his rosary,” she said.
The Diocese of Cork and Ross in Ireland, where O’Connell was born, was shocked by the priest’s death. Bishop Fintan Gavin said in a statement that O’Connell “has always maintained his connection with family and friends in Cork” through frequent visits back to Ireland.
The LA County sheriff offered the agency’s condolences, saying detectives are “committed to arresting those responsible for this horrible crime.”
“He was a peacemaker and had a passion serving those in need while improving our community,” Sheriff Robert Luna said on Twitter.
Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez offered the archdiocese’s prayers for the family of “Bishop Dave,” as well as law enforcement investigating the crime.
“He was a peacemaker with a heart for the poor and the immigrant, and he had a passion for building a community where the sanctity and dignity of every human life was honored and protected,” Gomez said.
Former LA Mayor Eric Garcetti called the bishop “a friend of many years” and said he was part of a prayer group with O’Connell during the coronavirus pandemic.
“This city has lost one of its most beautiful angels,” Garcetti said on Twitter Sunday.
The violence was the latest to rock religious leaders in Los Angeles . Two Jewish men were shot and wounded last week by a gunman who authorities said targeted them for their faith. Suspect Jaime Tran has been charged with federal hate crimes.