Troubleshooter Is Named to Lead Boston Catholics

By Laurie Goodstein and Fox Butterfield
New York Times
July 2, 2003

BOSTON, July 1 Bishop Sean P. O'Malley, a Franciscan friar, was appointed today by Pope John Paul II to lead the dispirited Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and he immediately set out to convey a new tone of episcopal humility and contrition. He met with victims of sexual abuse, visited hospital patients and emphasized in a news conference that his first task would be to listen.

He will not take charge officially here until his installation Mass, for which no date is set. But he suggested that one of his first steps in healing wounds would be to try to reach financial settlements with the hundreds of people who are suing the church for what he said was a "staggering" amount of money.

"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," he said in the news conference. "People's lives are more important than money."

In selecting Bishop O'Malley, 59, to replace Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who resigned in December after a year of escalating controversy, the Vatican is signaling that the situation is so serious in Boston, which was hit harder than any other diocese by the sexual abuse accusations last year, that the church requires a veteran to handle the fallout.

This is Bishop O'Malley's third appointment to a diocese racked by sexual abuse. His selection surprised many church experts because only nine months ago he was deployed from the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., to the Diocese of Palm Beach, Fla., to take command when the bishop there was accused of abuse.

To succeed him in Palm Beach, the Vatican today appointed Bishop Gerald M. Barbarito, 53, of the Diocese of Ogdensburg, N.Y.

"The Holy See has decided this is an extraordinary situation that requires an extraordinary remedy," said Mary Ann Glendon, a professor at Harvard Law School and a well-known conservative laywoman. Professor Glendon serves on the pontifical commission on the social sciences and was standing on the sidelines today at the news conference.

Bishop O'Malley, dressed in the plain brown habit symbolizing the austerity and poverty of his Capuchin order, spent met privately for 45 minutes this afternoon with more than a dozen people who say they were abused by Boston priests.

One of them, Steve Lynch, said he was invited to join the meeting from his makeshift bed under a tree outside the archdiocese's headquarters, where for the last six days he has been on a hunger strike to protest the church's treatment of sexual abuse victims.

"I think he heard the overriding words, which were, `We're holding your feet to the fire,' " Mr. Lynch said after the meeting.

While some here today reacted to the appointment of a new archbishop with the cautious optimism of those who have been repeatedly disillusioned, many were ecstatic at the choice. Several lay leaders, priests and abuse victims said that in this bishop they sensed a humility, intelligence and commitment to serve that embodied the church's true spirit.

"Bishop O'Malley seems to be the man we've been looking for for quite a while," said Rodney Ford, who said his son Gregory was abused by the Rev. Paul Shanley. "He listened to us," Mr. Ford said after meeting today with Bishop O'Malley. "You could see it in his eyes: compassion."

Dr. Jim Muller, a physician who helped found the lay movement Voice of the Faithful at the start of the scandal last year, heralded Bishop O'Malley as "an inspired choice by the pope."

" I think this is a model that will hopefully change leadership styles in the Catholic Church throughout the world," Dr. Muller said at a news conference at his group's headquarters in Newton, Mass.

He said he anticipated that the new archbishop would lift the ban imposed by Cardinal Law that prohibits new chapters of Voice of the Faithful from meeting in Catholic parishes. Dr. Muller called the ban "a mistake of the past" that he hoped the new archbishop would rectify.

Cardinal Law, who retained his seats on Vatican committees and his status as a voting member of the college of Cardinals, now lives with the Sisters of Mercy of Alma, an order of nuns in Clinton, Md. His temporary replacement, Bishop Richard G. Lennon, will remain here as apostolic administrator until Bishop O'Malley's installation. After that, Bishop Lennon could be sent to another diocese or could remain in Boston as an auxiliary bishop, said the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, a diocesan spokesman.

Bishop O'Malley, asked in his news conference what he had learned from his two previous assignments in fractured dioceses, said, "I think listening to the people was the biggest help, and I hope to be able to do that here."

As he did in the private meeting with victims, he offered the kind of emphatic apology that victims had often begged of Cardinal Law.

"I have said it many times, and I'm going to say it again for the victims today, as much as I can represent the church as a bishop, then I do ask for forgiveness for these horrendous sins and crimes that have been committed," Bishop O'Malley said. "The whole church feels ashamed and pained, and I do ask for forgiveness again and again."

Bishop O'Malley belongs to a Franciscan religious order, the Capuchin Friars Minor, which has about 11,000 members who traditionally serve in missions in places like Africa, India and Latin America. He first served as a bishop in the Virgin Islands. He speaks Spanish and Portuguese and responded in Spanish to several reporters from Hispanic news outlets.

He repeatedly expressed surprise at his appointment to what is the hot seat of the American church. He said that when the papal nuncio, the pope's representative, told him of his Palm Beach appointment, he had expected to spend the rest of his years there.

"I'm not sure why the pope picked me. I've always told the nuncio that I feel as though," Bishop O'Malley said, then paused, sighed, and appeared to tear up, "Capuchin bishops should be bishops only in the missions, but apparently my advice was not taken."

He said several times that he felt inadequate to his task here and asked for Catholics to pray for him.

The archdiocese that Bishop O'Malley will inherit is in widespread crisis. Some experts estimate that more than $100 million will be required to resolve the lawsuits by nearly 500 people who say they were sexuallly abused by clergymen.

There are decisions to be made about closing churches, schools and other Catholic properties, because the Boston Archdiocese is suffering from a decline in the number of priests and parishioners and a sharp drop in donations as a result of the sex abuse scandal.

There are restive priests, now organized in the Boston Priests Forum, asking for greater autonomy from a traditionally hierarchical institution.

The Rev. Robert Bullock, the pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Sharon and head of the Boston Priests Forum, said: "There are lots of people in the church who want this crisis to end and get back to normal. But they are wrong. There is no normal anymore. This is not just a crisis about a few sick priests. It is a crisis in the church."

And there are tens of thousands of lay Catholics, many of them organized in Voice of the Faithful, demanding a greater say in the church.

"I think Bishop O'Malley's greatest challenge, after reaching settlements with the victims, is to rebuild the trust of Boston Catholics and restore the respect of the entire community," said Thomas H. Groome, a professor of theology and religious education at Boston College.

"If Bishop O'Malley refuses to reach out to any of these groups, he will be in trouble," Professor Groome said. "These are not fringe people. They are good people, mainstream, conservative Catholics, and they are not going to back off."

The Boston Archdiocese has 505 priests, down from 1,072 two decades ago. In 2002 alone the number of active priests fell by 10 percent, many of them removed because of the sexual abuse scandal.

The archdiocese's annual parish-by-parish count of parishioners also shows a large decline in attendance at Mass since the abuse became public. The survey, taken last fall, found a 14 percent decrease from the year before in Mass attendance, said the Rev. Christopher Coyne, an archdiocese spokesman.

That means that weekly attendance has now fallen below 300,000 in the archdiocese, which claims 2.1 million Catholics.

Despite falling attendance, the archdiocese has closed almost no parishes, even in areas with few Catholics. But this spring under Bishop Lennon, it closed five elementary schools and is considering closing more, church officials say.

Father Coyne said the church's annual appeal, which used to be called the Cardinal's Appeal, had raised only $4.5 million of a targeted $9 million. The money is crucial to operating the archdiocese's schools and charities. In 2002, before the sex abuse scandal broke, the annual appeal raised $17.4 million. Moreover, a capital campaign started by Cardinal Law to raise $300 million is now likely to fall $100 million short, the officials say.

In a further sign of the stress inside the church, 100 of the archdiocese's 360 churches are withholding part of their weekly collections from the church's central office.

How the archdiocese will pay off the abuse settlements is unclear. Last year, Cardinal Law reached an agreement to pay $10 million to 86 victims of one priest, John Geoghan, whom the cardinal had transferred from parish to parish without warning anyone of Father Geoghan's record of abuse. But there are now 480 other people claiming to have been molested.

Roderick MacLeish Jr., a lawyer who represents 250 of the plaintiffs, put his lawsuits on hold for four months this spring while he tried to negotiate with Bishop Lennon. But last Friday Bishop Lennon unexpectedly announced that any settlement would have to be put off, and Mr. MacLeish said he would reluctantly go back to court next week.

That could now change because it was Mr. MacLeish who settled 101 cases of child abuse in the Fall River Diocese in the early 1990's, negotiating personally with Bishop O'Malley after Bishop O'Malley was transferred there following the first major sexual abuse scandal. The cases involved James Porter, a former priest who is now serving a prison sentence of 18 to 20 years.


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