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With his appointment Thursday as Archbishop of San Francisco, Utah's Catholic Bishop George H. Niederauer will be moving from a small, close-knit, conservative diocese where he has been a star to a lively, liberal, urban church where he is an unknown.

There will be plenty of challenges awaiting Niederauer when he is installed at St. Mary's Cathedral on Feb. 15. He faces million-dollar lawsuits, a growing population of ethnic minorities, a huge budget to manage, thousands of Catholic schoolchildren and the burgeoning needs of nine separate dioceses.

He must handle all this with a dwindling number of priests and a wary public. And don't forget California's Catholic governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who flouts church teaching: pro-abortion rights and pro-capital punishment.

With all that, the new archbishop isn't likely to have much time to sneak out to a friendly game of bridge or to his favorite foreign movies.

Not to worry, say Utahns who know him. Niederauer is up to the job. "He's going to be a gift to the people of San Francisco," said Monsignor Robert Bussen of St. Mary of the Assumption in Park City. "He's honest. He doesn't have any pomp about him. He's self-effacing. He can laugh at himself and laugh at the church's foibles."

At 69, Niederauer can handle any problem with aplomb, said the Rev. Colin Bircumshaw of St. Anne Parish in Salt Lake City. "The way he modeled ecumenical relationships here will be a great strength he takes with him to California."

From the day he was installed at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in January 1995, Niederauer began to build alliances with leaders of other faiths - Mormon, Episcopal, Jewish, Evangelical, to name a few - speaking out on urgent issues like guns on campus, pornography and, most recently, the war in Iraq. He joined miners on the picket line and learned Spanish so he could minister to the state's Latinos.

"His faith, intellect, leadership, and good will have blessed the people of Utah," the LDS Church First Presidency said in a prepared statement Thursday.

It's also impossible to afix a label to Niederauer's activism.

"He has never been an either/or kind of person," Bircumshaw said. "He always has been a both/and."

Bussen agrees.

Conservative Pope Benedict XVI could have made a statement with this first appointment of an American archbishop, but he didn't. Niederauer is no "hard-liner," Bussen said. "He's not doctrinaire or dogmatic. He doesn't have an edge, doesn't have an agenda, and doesn't come to the job with marching orders."

The other quality Niederauer will take with him is love for his priests.

"The bishop lets you do your own thing," Bussen said. "He doesn't look over your shoulder like he is there to correct you. Under that kind of personal affection and allowing his priests to lead, we've seen the parishes flourish."

But his defense of priests doesn't mean Niederauer is insensitive to abuse victims, Bussen and others said.

In 2002, Niederauer reviewed priest records and announced publicly that eight of 400 priests serving in Utah since 1950 had been accused of sexual abuse of minors. Since then, two Salt Lake County brothers sued Niederauer and the diocese, claiming they were abused by a priest in the 1970s. The case was dismissed for exceeding the statute of limitations; the appeal is pending in the Utah Supreme Court

Because of his skill as a communicator, Niederauer was appointed to head the bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Child Sex Abuse. He helped craft language about dealing with abusive priests, responding to victims and steps to prevent it in the future.

Many of his words became the church's policy. And Utah's own standards became a model for many other dioceses.

"He's forthright, honest, and wants the right thing for all people," said Rosemary Baron, a lay woman who heads the diocese's Review Board for the Protection of Children. "He has a sense of balance, wanting everyone to be heard, and acknowledging everyone's viewpoint."

Beyond priests, Niederauer's warmth has touched many ordinary believers in every parish.

"Certainly, he is a bishop of the people," Baron said. "We've never had that before."

Niederauer has visited every corner of the state, stopping by tiny parishes and giving hope to Catholics in places where their numbers are few. He has taught classes on writers like Flannery O'Connor.

He gave the University of Utah commencement address one morning and celebrated Mass at a Philippine Catholic parish that afternoon.

Then there's his avid bridge playing.

Not long after he arrived, Niederauer got together with three elderly couples and a priest to play, dubbing themselves the "Senior Moments Bridge Club." The bishop, by the way, is the youngest.

Every month they meet in someone's home or at a restaurant for lunch at noon and play until 4, sometimes later if the bishop's schedule allows.

"He's competitive," says player Emery Carter. "But I wouldn't call him a killer."

A second group, "Bridge With the Bishop," started later with Jenifer Gibbons, her husband and two sons. If she didn't introduce him as the bishop, she said, no one would ever guess. He certainly wouldn't tell them. "I don't think he's threatened or nervous about anything," she said.

It's sad to see Niederauer leave, Gibbons and others said, but they feel he will be a strong spiritual leader in San Francisco.

"He is a blessing wherever he goes," said Shirley Mares, who has been Niederauer's secretary for more than 10 years. "God knows what he's doing."

l Born in Los Angeles in 1936

l Ordained as a priest for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles 1962; ordained the eighth bishop of Utah's Catholic diocese 1995

l Received the Gandhi Peace Award from the Gandhi Alliance for Peace in 2004

l Holds bachelor's of sacred theology degree and master's and doctoral degrees in English literature.