Palm Beach Parishioners Weary of High Turnover Among Bishops

By Mike Clary
Sun-Sentinel [Boca Raton FL]
July 7, 2003

Boca Raton At the top of the Palm Beach Diocese, the bishops come and go. When Gerald M. Barbarito is installed as prelate this fall, he will be the fifth bishop to lead the 225,000 Roman Catholics in the diocese since it was created 19 years ago.

At the parish level, many whose faith has been rocked by a series of sexual abuse scandals are concerned more about their bishop's leadership style than who he is or where he came from.

And they are praying for stability.

"We've been through so much," said Lisa Manko, who was following her 31/2-year-old son, Noah, out the door of St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Boca Raton after the 9:15 a.m. Mass on Sunday. "Catholics need support right now. So if I had any advice for the new bishop, it would be to hang in there and give us some guidance."

The crisis confronting the Catholic Church in the United States is ongoing. After being sent here just nine months ago to heal a diocese reeling from the resignation of two previous bishops who admitted molesting minors, Bishop Sean P. O'Malley was reassigned last week to Boston, an archdiocese even more riven by scandal. O'Malley's successor, Barbarito, 53, a native of Brooklyn, comes here from the diocese of Ogdensburg in Upstate New York.

As the church struggles to restore trust by removing abusive priests from the ministry, shuffling bishops and issuing guidelines on clerical conduct, it is not just parishioners who have been shaken.

"I felt an enormous weight, wondering when I went out wearing the collar if I was going to be stared at," said the Rev. Roger F. McDonough, a pastor at St. Joan of Arc. "There has been a lot of anger at church leaders over this."

That anger is often expressed in disaffection, ecclesiastical doubts and a drop-off in church attendance. Manko, 33, said she has often found herself defending her religion, especially to her 30-something friends. "There is a loss of faith out there," she said.

O'Malley set up a lay panel to look into complaints against diocesan priests and endorsed the zero-tolerance policy on pedophilia outlined by the bishops in 2002. But he rarely gave interviews to the news media.

Boca Raton financial adviser Anthony Fisher, 34, urged Barbarito to be accessible. "Keep all Catholics up to speed on what's going on, assure us that there is a light at the end of the tunnel," he said. "Be more open."

With more than 6,000 families, St Joan of Arc is one of the largest parishes in the diocese. With a mix of longtime residents, recent arrivals from the Northern United States, especially the New York area, and immigrants from Latin America, the parish reflects the multicultural demography of South Florida. The church offers nine Masses each weekend in English and one in Spanish.

In a sampling of opinion solicited outside the church's front door, most of those questioned said they were grateful that the Vatican had decided to replace O'Malley immediately.

Ann Voit, a teacher's aide in the diocese's elementary school, said she would like to see Barbarito "be very pastoral.

"He should go to each parish and meet the people so we can get to know him," she said.

For Laura Liquori, the balm the church needs now could be a return to tradition. "People don't understand the faith," Liquori said as she stood near a table under the church portico recruiting volunteers to pray silently as part of the adoration ministry. "We need to get back to the Gospel, teaching people about the Stations of the Cross, going to confession, understanding the sacraments."

The church's problems persist. A Contemporary Catholic Trends poll published in May showed that among Catholic Americans, confidence in the way the bishops have responded to the sexual abuse scandal continues to fall.

"Everybody's sense is that it is not over," said McDonough, who was raised in the Bronx, N.Y., and came here almost four years ago to be near his aging mother in Boca Raton. "The lawsuits continue, and for the victims it is not over. And it never will be.

"The church is about redemption and forgiveness," he said. "But when a priest has repeated incidents [of abuse], and we recycle these people, it blows my mind. The church has to come to grips with that."

Mike Clary can be reached at or 561-243-6629.


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