Bishop Joseph Martino, head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Scranton and one of the most fervent pro-life voices in the nation, is widely reported to be resigning next week after just six years in the office and long before traditional retirement age.

Martino, 62, who served as a priest and auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, has rarely appeared in public during his term in the 350,000-member Scranton diocese. Yet he has not shied from controversy, denouncing pro-choice politicians, theologically liberal academics, and Catholic teachers' unions.

The diocesan communications office declined yesterday to confirm reports by local media, the Catholic News Agency, and the National Catholic Reporter that Martino was stepping down and hinting at health problems. However, a major news conference is scheduled for Monday.

Standard retirement age for Catholic bishops is 75.

Rumors of his resignation began to circulate this week after the Scranton Times-Tribune reported that his belongings were being moved from the rectory of St. Peter's Cathedral in Scranton to a vacant retreat house in Dalton, Lackawanna County.

A native of Philadelphia, he graduated from St. Joseph's Prep and St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, and was ordained a priest in 1970. He was a monsignor and director of the Philadelphia archdiocese's office of pastoral life when made an auxiliary bishop by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua in 1996.

Martino enjoyed a reputation in Philadelphia as a genial scholar - he taught theology at St. Charles Borromeo and championed Mother Katherine Drexel's cause for sainthood - but in Scranton he seemed both reclusive and combative.

Martino instructed all priests to refuse to give Holy Communion to any Catholic elected officials whose position on abortion and other life issues departed from church teachings.

The bishop further threatened to withhold communion from U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.), for voting to approve former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as secretary of the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

Martino also refused to recognize the Catholic teachers' union, and threatened to close a Catholic college's diversity program after it invited a gay-rights speaker.

Last year, he arrived unannounced at a parish whose members were discussing a document on political responsibility recently issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

He ordered the discussion closed, telling the gathering, "No USCCB document is relevant in this diocese. The USCCB doesn't speak for me. The only relevant document," he said, was his letter on politics, which he had ordered read at all parishes.

Donna Farrell, spokeswoman for the Philadelphia archdiocese, said yesterday she could not comment on reports that Cardinal Justin Rigali, the Philadelphia archbishop, would serve as interim administrator of the 12-county Scranton diocese if Martino steps down. She said Rigali was in Rome.