New Bishop Faces Hurdles

By Bill Cooper and Elizabeth Clarke
Palm Beach Post
July 3, 2003

Can incoming Bishop Gerald Barbarito heal the Diocese of Palm Beach?

The challenges faced by the newly appointed leader of the local Catholic Church stretch well beyond completing the work started by his predecessor, local church and lay leaders said Wednesday.

Barbarito, 53, assumes a diocese whose scars from sex scandals involving two former bishops and breaches in financial accountability are still fresh. The Brooklyn native comes to the Palm Beach Diocese from Ogdensburg, a rural upstate New York diocese that stretches to the Canadian border.

Eight months ago, Bishop Sean O'Malley was sent here to begin the healing process. By most accounts, the bishop, who wears a Franciscan robe and sandals, has given local Catholics some spiritual stability.

But the Vatican has given the 59-year-old O'Malley a new mission: He must take his gift of healing to the Archdiocese of Boston. O'Malley leaves behind an unfinished blueprint for change in the church that was just beginning to take shape.

"I think in a large way he helped to restore confidence in the episcopacy," said the Rev. Charles Notabartolo, vicar general of the Palm Beach Diocese.

O'Malley created a new organizational structure for the diocese, the cornerstone of which were priests selected to head 12 secretariats that were to report to him. They covered areas ranging from family life to evangelism.

O'Malley also visited all the parishes and was just getting to know each of the priests. And he had just begun a round of follow-up visits to meet with parish councils and finance boards.

Attorney Ed Ricci, a church benefactor and one of its harshest critics, credits O'Malley for doing a good job "putting out forest fires."

But Barbarito must go the next step by weeding out any problem priests and restoring financial accountability to the diocese, Ricci said.

"He has to make it a priority to meet with every one of them in a private conference and look them in the eye and ask if there are any skeletons," he said. "This isn't going to go away because he's a guy with a nice smile and an open door."

That's a tall order for a bishop who faces a shortage of priests to keep pace with the five-county diocese's growth.. Notabartolo, the diocese's second-in-command, said strengthening the ranks of priests is critical.

"We're becoming very thin," he said. "A lot of priests are older now and we're in a place where we really need to be making more parishes, but we're having difficulty staffing the parishes we have."

In fact, Barbarito will have the same number of priests working for him here that he had in Ogdensburg -- about 105 -- but priests here serve nearly 100,000 more Catholics. And South Florida isn't like other parts of the country, where one priest can travel and serve a handful of small churches.

"Because of the large population in each parish, you need multiple priests to take care of that parish," Notabartolo said.

And Barbarito must reach beyond the clergy to the laity. Parishioners such as Stephen Budd believe some have a "wary eye" because the potential for sexual abuse still looms in the diocese.

Yet, Budd, also a teacher at the diocese's Rosarian Academy in West Palm Beach, said the past problems have produced some positive results. The scandals involving former Bishop Anthony O'Connell last year and Bishop Keith Symons three years ago have forced Catholics to unite.

"The diocese, the people, need to be given credit for what we've gone through and how we've done it," said Budd, a parishioner at St. Therese de Lisieux in Wellington. "He needs to come in and join us. We don't need someone to come in and lead us in a new direction. We need someone to respect what we've done and lead us from there."


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