Camden Diocese Bishop Joseph Galante retired Tuesday because of ailing health, and his successor has been named by the pope.

South Jersey Catholic leaders called Galante, 74, an effective leader whose decision in 2008 to close half the diocese’s parishes angered some.

“We are very sorry he is retiring,” said Susan Dennen, principal of Holy Spirit High School in Absecon. “He has done many wonderful things, even though some of them were controversial.”

The new leader of the Camden Diocese is Bishop Dennis Sullivan, 67, currently the vicar general of the New York Archdiocese. Sullivan is a member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' committee on child protection, which oversees the U.S. church's norms on dealing with sexual abuse.

He takes over at a time when the mergers of parishes and schools over the past four years have left some areas in a delicate state.

The Rev. Bob Gregorio, senior priest at St. Joseph Church in Somers Point, said the decision to merge parishes four years ago brought to an end plans for a needed church in Marmora, Upper Township. Instead, the Upper Township parish was merged with one in Woodbine and a mission in Middle Township.

Gregorio added that supporters of the then-new church had raised about $1.2 million, of which a quarter was used for blueprints and state permits — all which was in vain.

Though St. Joseph was not affected by the mergers, Gregorio said he understands that “people generally resist change and are possessive and concerned about their local home parish.”

Galante’s decisions to downsize were driven by a number of factors: a shortage of diocesan priests available for ministry, declining church attendance, and population and demographic trends in religious practice.

Gregorio said Galante made difficult decisions that previous leaders would not.

“I appreciate the knocks he took. It is easy to see the number of priests you will have 10, 15 or 20 years from now, and the previous bishops should have done it,” Gregorio said.

Those decisions affected parishes in Northfield and Pleasantville, Mays Landing and Egg Harbor Township, Hammonton, Downbeach, Atlantic City and elsewhere in Atlantic County, as well as in Cumberland and Cape May counties.

Galante began as bishop in 2004. During his tenure, the number of parishes fell from 124 to 70. His mandatory retirement would have been in July, at age 75, but the pope approved his resignation due to chronic kidney disease,

Priests at parishes affected by the mergers in Atlantic and Cape May counties were hesitant to respond to questions Tuesday, citing the delicate and still new situations of the merged parishes.

It is too early to make any comments on the new bishop, Dennen said.

Sullivan was confirmed Tuesday morning by Pope Benedict XVI.

Some issues the diocese continues to face include how to re-engage people into practicing the faith after the terrible handling of the priest pedophilia scandals, Gregorio said, as well as re-engaging the youth of the community.

“There is so much peer pressure, and a temporary comfort” in not going to church when so many other of their peers are not attending, Gregorio said.

“There are many options out there,” Dennen said about Catholic education. “It is not an easy issue, and we need to position ourselves to be a viable option for parents.”

Diocese spokesman Peter Feuerherd said the new bishop has not had a chance to get to know the Camden Diocese.

He does, however, come with a strong interest in the immigrant population, particularly Latinos, Feuerherd said. Sullivan was also present during mergers within the New York archdiocese, which makes dealing with the new climate after the mergers easier, he said.

There are still a few more loose ends, Feuerherd said, though they will not be dealt with until the transition period for the new bishop is complete.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Anjalee Khemlani:

609-272-7247

Follow Anjalee Khemlani on Twitter @AnjKhem