Brooklyn-Born Barbarito Brings Humble Style to Palm Beach

By Joe Feuerherd
National Catholic Reporter
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Priests in the Brooklyn diocese faced with a canonical conundrum or other problem requiring chancery guidance knew what to do: "Just call Gerry."

Gerry was Father Gerald Barbarito, then vice chancellor of the 1.6 million member Brooklyn diocese. In 1994, the affable Barbarito was made an auxiliary bishop in the diocese, and five years later installed as bishop of Ogdensburg, NY.

On July 1 the pope named 53-year-old Barbarito as the fourth bishop in five years to the troubled diocese of Palm Beach, succeeding Bishop Sean O'Malley. O'Malley, soon of Boston and less than a year in the Palm Beach job, had begun to make reforms to reestablish the church's credibility after his two immediate predecessors were accused of sexual misconduct.

Barbarito told a July 1 Palm Beach press conference that he expects to implement O'Malley's changes, including a recently announced reorganization of diocesan departments.

Barbarito was the go-to guy in Brooklyn, recalled Msgr. Ronald Marino, because he is "meticulously fair" and "tries to be extremely pastoral in his approach to things." Said Marino: "You never had the feeling that you were annoying him -- you were important to him."

A sign of their affection: on a wintry New York day Brooklyn priests filled a chartered plane to attend Barbarito's installation as bishop of Ogdensburg.

In just three-and-a-half years at Ogdensburg's helm, Barbarito had a positive impact, even as he undertook some unpleasant tasks, said Michael Alteri, a Morgan Stanley financial adviser. Alteri chairs the Watertown Education Council, created by one of Barvarito's first orders of business: consolidating Catholic schools in the diocese's largest jurisdiction, Watertown, N.Y.

"It was clear that we couldn't support four grade schools," said Alteri. In a sign of the dreary economics of northern New York State, Watertown's population dropped a third -- from 30,000 to 20,000 -- between 1990 and 2000.

In establishing the education council, said Alteri, Barbarito provided a clear mandate: "Make sure you do your homework, look at all the variables, and do what's in the long term interest of Catholic schools in our area -- don't put a Band-Aid on it."

The process was painful -- "people don't like change and this area is no different" -- but collaborative, said Alteri. In November 2002, Barbarito accepted the committee's recommendation to establish one grade school, one middle school, and maintain the high school.

"You can't help but love the guy," said Alteri. "You can see his sincerity the first time you talk to him. I'll miss dealing with him."

Meanwhile, 1,500 miles from the diocese of Ogdensburg, Barbarito addressed the July 1 press conference. "I am as surprised to be here as you are this morning," Barbarito said. He learned the day before that he was being named to head the Palm Beach diocese.

Papal nuncio Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo wrote Barbarito saying, "Aware of the great affection the people of God in Palm Beach had quickly shown to your predecessor, His Holiness was anxious that they should not be left one day without the pastoral leadership of a new pastor."

Montalvo noted that the Palm Beach diocese has "undergone great trials in recent times."

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is


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