Acts of Contrition

Berkshire Eagle [Boston MA]
Downloaded July 5, 2003

The Vatican's choice of Bishop Sean P. O'Malley to lead the troubled Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston was an inspired one. The Capuchin friar showed up in a plain brown robe and sandals and his first public words were the ones that Boston Catholics had waited in vain to hear from their church leadership, especially the haughty Cardinal Bernard Law who resigned after it was revealed he covered for abusive priests: "The whole church feels ashamed and pained and I do ask for forgiveness again and again." And after meeting with victims of sexual abuse, he indicated that the diocese will take full responsibility for the actions of its priests and settle all lawsuits, because, he said, "people's lives are more important than money."

He said he felt inadequate to the task before him and asked Catholics to pray for him. He said Cardinal Law's residence was too fancy for his tastes, and he would probably seek humbler accommodations. He fairly radiated compassion, contrition and humility, and the most outspoken critics of the church welcomed him. One half expected a crowd of birds and small animals to gather around him as legend has it they attended the patron of his order, St. Francis of Assisi, who restored a focus on spirituality and ministry to the poor to a church that had grown wealthy, powerful and corrupt.

Bishop O'Malley is no stranger to Massachusetts or to child sex abuse scandals. In the early 1990s, he was bishop in Fall River where he settled 101 cases against a local priest who is now in jail. Lawyer Roderick MacLeish, who makes his living suing the church, says Bishop O'Malley "got this issue and understood it long before other bishops did." His reputation as a successful troubleshooter earned him appointment as bishop of Palm Beach, where his predecessor had been forced to resign in disgrace, and now he sits in the hottest seat in the American church.

The Boston Archdiocese is in grave crisis. It faces hundreds of child sex abuse lawsuits. It has lost half its priests in the past 20 years, 10 percent in the last year alone. A group of dissident priests is challenging the authority of the bishop to command them. Attendance at Mass is way down, as are the charitable donations upon which the church relies to finance its works, and many mainstream conservative Catholics have joined the Voice of the Faithful and are calling for greater lay involvement in church decisions. Bishop O'Malley's skills as a conciliator and peacemaker will be severely tested in the weeks and months to come, but on his first day he said and did all the right things.


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