Powerful Job of Boston Prelate Falls to Champion of Humility
Monk Is Unusual Choice to Head Archdiocese

By Alan Cooperman and Pamela Ferdinand
Washington Post
July 2, 2003

Speaking to reporters after he was named yesterday as the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston, Sean Patrick O'Malley said he did not yet know where he would live. But he suggested it probably would not be the baronial mansion inhabited by his predecessor, Cardinal Bernard M. Law.

"Obviously, as a Franciscan brother, I prefer to have the simplest quarters," he said.

That came as an understatement to residents of the Renaissance Apartments in Washington, who remembered the day in 1977 when he moved into two rooms on the first floor of their white brick building at 3060 16th St. NW.

It was then known as the Kenesaw Building, and more than half of its 83 units were vacant. It had no heat in winter, no air-conditioning in summer. What it did have was rats and roaches, drug dealers and fires.

"Padre Sean," as Hispanic residents still call O'Malley, turned one room into a chapel and slept on the floor in the other.

"It was a dangerous place to live, believe me," said Silverio Coy, a lawyer and Hispanic community activist who helped O'Malley organize the tenants to fight eviction, form a cooperative and renovate the building. "He wanted to make a statement that not only was he going to help these people, he was going to share their needs and anxieties every single day."

In tapping O'Malley to take over the epicenter of the scandal over clergy sexual abuse, the Vatican is betting he can rally disgruntled parishioners and dispirited priests in Boston, just as he once brought together dejected immigrants in Adams Morgan.

Thomas H. Groome, a professor of theology at Boston College, called the appointment both "surprising and ingenious." It was surprising, he said, because O'Malley was not on most experts' publicly floated lists of candidates and had served less than a year in his previous post, as bishop of Palm Beach, Fla.

But it was also ingenious, Groome added, because "in a sense, they are bringing a monk to be the archbishop of Boston." As a Capuchin Franciscan priest, O'Malley lives under a vow of perpetual poverty. He wears sandals and a simple brown robe tied with rope, keeps few possessions and has devoted his ministry to working with the poor.

Members of monastic orders seldom are chosen to head major U.S. dioceses. But a Franciscan monk's humility and compassion -- in addition to O'Malley's experience dealing with the sexual abuse crisis in two other dioceses -- are exactly what the nation's third-largest archdiocese needs in its next leader, Groome said.

A Burl Ives figure with a deep voice and white beard, O'Malley described himself at his news conference as still "shell-shocked" by his appointment by Pope John Paul II and "acutely aware of my own deficiencies in the face of the task at hand."

Alluding to a humorous ad on the radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," he said he planned to "eat those Powdermilk biscuits, you know, the ones for shy people. Eat them and get up and do what's gotta be done."

More concretely, O'Malley promised to meet personally with as many victims of sexual abuse by priests as possible, beginning with some private meetings yesterday afternoon. He also said he would push for quick settlement of their lawsuits, which number in the hundreds.

"I have always told diocesan lawyers in the past that settlements are not hush money or extortion or anything other than the rightful indemnification of persons who have suffered gravely at the hands of a priest," he said. "Even when I have been told that there is no legal obligation, I have always said if there is a moral obligation, then we must step up to the plate."

Victims' groups generally hailed the appointment as a step in the right direction, though some voiced caution. Stephen Lewis, 47, of Lynn, Mass., one of about a dozen alleged victims protesting outside the chancery's gates on Commonwealth Avenue, said he believed O'Malley was "cut from the same cloth" as the rest of the church hierarchy.

"He's a puppet; he's another charlatan," Lewis said. "We're not letting any one of them off the hook here."

O'Malley, 59, has faced hostility many times before. The Rev. Donato Lippert, a fellow Franciscan, remembers a sermon O'Malley once preached to foreign diplomats at St. Matthew's Cathedral in the late 1970s. O'Malley chastised many of them for keeping domestic workers in virtual servitude in their Washington homes.

"By the time he was done, I think it was just him and the sacristan left. Everyone else walked out," Lippert said. "But I don't think it bothered him at all."

Reared in a middle-class Irish American family outside of Cleveland and educated at Catholic schools in Pennsylvania, O'Malley came to Washington in the mid-1960s to study at the Capuchin College. He earned a doctorate in Spanish and Portuguese literature from Catholic University, where he taught from 1969 to 1973.

But he is best remembered for his work with the Hispanic community as head of the Spanish Catholic Center and founder of the archdiocese's Spanish-language newspaper.

Irene S. Baldizon, 49, proudly reaches for a pewter-covered photo album in her apartment at the Renaissance Apartments. The first picture is of O'Malley presiding at her son's communion.

"He helped the people pay rent, pay food, pay medicine. Not government money. He gave to people," she said, apologizing for her accented English. "All the people remember O'Malley, all the people love Padre Sean."

Baldizon moved into the building as soon as she arrived from Nicaragua. It had been given to the Antioch School of Law, which wanted to sell it to a developer. But with O'Malley's help, it became a symbol of the battle against displacing low-income families from neighborhoods being gentrified.

"A lot of good people lived there, but they didn't coordinate anything before Father O'Malley came," said Coy, the community activist. "He transformed their lives."

Trading on Antioch's pride in its tradition of social liberalism, O'Malley persuaded the law school to sell the building to the tenants and secured a loan from the city. Coy said no one, from the poorest immigrant to the wealthiest developer, could resist the charisma of the priest in worn-out sandals.

"I once asked him why his sandals had holes in them, and he said his order would replace them, but he had to use them up first," Coy said. "He took his vows very seriously, and that struck me from the beginning."

Luis Rumbaut, former director of Ayuda Legal Services, a free legal clinic in Adams Morgan, said O'Malley had such a devoted following that "people were ready to beatify him" when he left to become bishop of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands in 1984.

O'Malley later said the promotion to bishop was a "big surprise" for a young priest who had not taken any of the usual paths to advancement, such as studying in Rome or becoming a canon lawyer. In 1992, he was surprised again, this time by being appointed bishop in Fall River, Mass., a diocese reeling from allegations that the Rev. James R. Porter had abused more than 100 children.

At his first Mass there, O'Malley endeared himself to the large immigrant population by breaking into Portuguese, one of six languages he speaks fluently. He quickly settled lawsuits and began criminal background checks for church workers. After a decade in Fall River, O'Malley was named by the Vatican last year to take the helm in Palm Beach, where two bishops in a row had resigned over allegations of sexual misconduct.

Denise Coulombe, 52, a volunteer at Fall River's Holy Name Parish for 30 years, said she has an indelible image of O'Malley walking "on Highland Avenue, with all the mansions and fancy houses, in his sandals and brown robes with joggers going by." Previous bishops, she said, "used to have chauffeurs drive them around."

Fall River Mayor Edward M. Lambert Jr. recalls the bishop praying at his wife's bedside when she was ill.

"Sean O'Malley has always struck people here as someone who puts people first, and there's no doubt in my mind that he will do so" in Boston, Lambert said. "I don't think it's the safe choice for the church. But I certainly think it's the right one."

Ferdinand reported from Boston. Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.