Cardinal Justin Rigali's defenders and detractors have found little to agree on in the last eight years, save for this: His tenure as archbishop has been as fraught as any in the history of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Clouds were gathering over the Roman Catholic Church in Southeastern Pennsylvania well before Rigali arrived from St. Louis in October 2003. A Philadelphia grand jury was already a year into an exhaustive investigation of clergy sex abuse. In the fall of 2005, the panel would release a devastating report that exposed five dozen wayward priests, while excoriating Rigali's two predecessors and the broken system of victim justice that he had inherited.

Now, at 76, Rigali is retiring in the midst of a full-blown storm, powered by a second grand jury report packed with more explosive findings about alleged priestly sins - and, this time, the cardinal's own alleged mismanagement of the crisis.

Among Rigali's admirers, "there is a sense of sadness about the timing" of his departure, said Rocco Palmo, a Catholic blogger who writes the inside-track "Whispers in the Loggia." "Of all ways to end an active ministry, this is hardly the one you'd want."

The lament echoes widely. Bishop Joseph McFadden, who was called in 2010 to head the Harrisburg Diocese after six years as an auxiliary bishop under Rigali, does not dispute the grand jury's conclusions. But the report, he said, "tainted the wonderful work he's done in Philadelphia."

After the announcement last month of his retirement and his replacement by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver, official on Sept. 8, the archdiocese prepared a list of Rigali's achievements.

Among them: His launch in 2009 of a capital campaign that has raised more than $220 million in pledges. His direction of the archdiocese's bicentennial celebration in 2008. And his creation last year of a panel to study the needs of the shrinking Catholic school system; its recommendations will go to Chaput.

Rigali, McFadden stressed, "gave good, good leadership throughout his tenure, which was not an easy time."

Indeed, Rigali's accomplishments were set against a backdrop of contraction, diminished Mass attendance among the archdiocese's 1.5 million members, shrinking clerical ranks, and shuttered parishes and schools.

During Rigali's first year here, the archdiocese had 206 elementary schools, 22 high schools, and five schools of special education in Philadelphia and Bucks, Delaware, Montgomery, and Chester Counties. As of June, there were just 157 elementary schools, 17 high schools, and four special-education schools.

Unlike Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua before him, Rigali never closed multiple parishes in one fell swoop. Still, he saw it necessary to reduce their number - one by one, and often by merger - because of declining membership. The 268 parishes are down from 279 when he arrived.

Such disheartening trends preceded him, some for decades. And they won't go away in two weeks, when Chaput moves into the mansion on Cardinal Avenue in West Philadelphia and Rigali departs for a two-room retirement apartment in the residence of a friend, the bishop of Knoxville, Tenn.

But whatever thoughts he might have about his time in Philadelphia, his triumphs, his troubles, his hopes for the flock going forward - you will not read them here.

He has rarely granted interviews to the secular news media. Even when the grand jury report was released in February, followed by the arrests of four current and former priests and a former teacher at a parochial school, he responded only through press releases and a brief, videotaped speech on YouTube.

And when in March he suspended more than two dozen priests accused of sexual abuse or other inappropriate behavior with minors, he communicated with the public for the most part via written statements.

Over the last month, a spokeswoman declined The Inquirer's requests for an exit interview with the cardinal.

Many longtime associates and observers are hardly so media-shy. Their perceptions can be as far apart as heaven and hell.

"If Disney came up with an animatron of a bishop," said John Salveson, an advocate for abuse victims in Pennsylvania, "it would look like him: bloodless and soulless."

Others tell stories of "a very kind, very gentle man," as McFadden described him - a shepherd who phoned priests spending Christmas and Easter alone, visited their relatives in the hospital, and said Funeral Masses for their parents.

He was a steady presence at the bedsides of injured police officers, and a consoling voice for families of the fallen. "His support, his comfort, his prayers - they meant an awful lot to the families" of officers killed in the line of duty, Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey recalled recently.

None other than Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams - whose office oversaw the 2011 grand jury that rebuked Rigali for failing to remove credibly accused priests - expressed regret over the cardinal's departure.

"I am personally sad to see him go," said Williams, a lifelong Catholic who is active in his West Philadelphia parish and has served on archdiocesan committees. "He was always willing to share prayers for me and my family."

Vatican influence

Largely out of sight of his Philadelphia flock, Rigali has enjoyed a position as one of the most influential American bishops in Vatican circles.

He is "the master Roman operator and kingmaker," John Allen, a columnist and former Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, recently observed.

Chaput has praised Rigali's "extraordinary" 34 years in the Vatican diplomatic corps, hailing him as "one of the great churchmen of my lifetime."

Rigali travels at least monthly to Rome, where he serves on the Pontifical Congregation for Bishops, which recommends to the pope who should be made bishops and where they should be assigned worldwide.

Rome is where Rigali feels most at home, say friends, who describe him as quintessentially romanita - embodying the ancient spirit of the Eternal City.

Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville recalled that the Los Angeles-born Rigali had his first taste of a McDonald's hamburger only in 1994, after decades in Rome.

"I taught him about fast food," said Stika, his secretary and vicar general when Rigali led the St. Louis Archdiocese. "He taught me about the universal church."

Rigali took his first breath of rarefied Vatican air in 1961.

Freshly ordained, he was sent by the Los Angeles archdiocese to Rome, where he earned advanced degrees at two pontifical universities and joined the English-language section of the Vatican's Secretariat of State. By 1966, he was the papal envoy to Madagascar.

His star continued to rise under Pope John Paul II, whom he served as an English translator and accompanied on numerous foreign trips. He was made a bishop in 1985, and nine years later he became archbishop of St. Louis.

There, Rigali created a financial council, ran a successful capital campaign, and restored the archdiocese to a sound fiscal footing.

When John Paul visited St. Louis in 1999, Rigali devoted extraordinary attention to detail. He even chose the precise hue of the streamers in the papal parade, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter recalled recently.

Still, unlike three of the four previous archbishops in St. Louis, Rigali was not elevated to cardinal there, prompting speculation that he had fallen out of favor in Rome.

The red cap would come two weeks after his installation in Philadelphia.

Force among bishops

Rigali also has been a player within the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Palmo, the blogger, said Rigali had been a force behind the election last year of the conservative Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York as conference president. Dolan beat out Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., a "social justice" moderate.

Rigali hoisted the banner of the pro-life movement for the conference. From 2006 to 2009, as chairman of the committee on pro-life activities, he campaigned for a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage, spoke at antiabortion rallies, and denounced the University of Notre Dame's decision in 2009 to have President Obama speak at commencement.

Rigali played no conspicuous role, however, in creating the conference's 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. It requires diocesan bishops to remove any priest credibly accused of abuse - exactly what the grand jury this year said Rigali had failed to do in dozens of cases.

Bevilacqua and the late Cardinal John Krol had been assailed for much worse by the 2005 grand jury, which found they had engaged in a "massive" and "immoral cover-up" of dozens of abusive priests over five decades.

That panel did not criticize Rigali, a newcomer then. Yet his response to its report alienated many Catholics staggered by its revelations. He authorized the archdiocese's law firm, Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young L.L.P. - which for years had advised Bevilacqua on sex-abuse matters - to rebut the report. The lawyers came out swinging.

Rigali sat silently at a news conference as William Sasso, the firm's senior partner, denounced the grand jury's work as "anti-Catholic" and a "diatribe."

A multipage Stradley Ronon rebuttal called the report "nothing more than an attempt to convict in the court of public opinion those whom it does not indict in a court of law," and dismissed it as "reckless rhetoric" and "not responsible law enforcement.

After the 2005 grand jury report, Rigali gradually changed some of the ways the archdiocese handled sex-abuse allegations. He met often with victims, and in public forums spoke compassionately of their suffering.

Yet many never saw him as their ally.

"I'm glad he's gone," said Catherine Spoerl, 65, whose young son was abused for three years by a priest at a parish in Northeast Philadelphia during the 1980s. Rigali, she said, "was very unresponsive."

Salveson, the victims' advocate, accused the cardinal of thwarting efforts to create a "window" in Pennsylvania's civil statute of limitations and give adults an opportunity to sue those they allege assailed them during childhood.

Despite the continuing currents of discontent with the archdiocese's response to abuse complaints, the grand jury report hit in February like a cannonade.

"Apparent abusers - dozens of them, we believe - remain on duty in the archdiocese today, with open access to new, young prey," the panel wrote.

That day, Rigali issued a one-paragraph statement assuring the faithful "there are no archdiocesan priests in ministry today who have an admitted or established allegation of sexual abuse of a minor against them."

Within a month, however, he made national headlines by removing 27 priests from active ministry.

Williams, the district attorney, praised Rigali for that action, and for quickly hiring a team of independent investigators to dig into the accusations against the suspended clerics.

Others, however, have not been so laudatory.

The chairwoman of the long-standing archdiocesan board charged with reviewing abuse complaints revealed that church leaders had failed to pass many cases along to her group.

"Cardinal Rigali and his auxiliary bishops . . . failed miserably at being open and transparent," Ana Maria Catanzaro wrote in a May 12 article in the Catholic biweekly Commonweal.

With his installation in less than two weeks, Chaput inherits a situation not unlike the one that confronted Rigali eight years ago - and in some ways worse. It is left to him to decide who among the suspended priests will return to ministry, and who won't.

"I don't look forward to it," Chaput said in an interview in Denver on Thursday. "I know whatever decisions made will be painful for some."

Rigali will be spared that. But he also will miss out on the inauguration in Philadelphia this fall of the new English-language missal - a book of liturgies whose creation he helped oversee for the Vatican.

He will remain a presence in Rome, associates say. Until he turns 80 in April 2015, he will be a papal elector, and eligible to serve on Vatican boards. He will be a cardinal for life.

Rigali may take an apartment in Rome while maintaining an office at Knoxville's diocesan headquarters.

"He'll be back and forth," predicted Stika, who said the members of his small Tennessee diocese were excited to have the cardinal residing among them, as were Stika's young nieces and nephews.

They address Rigali, he said, as "Uncle Archbishop."