Leo Sandon: Boston's New Friar Archbishop Is Good News

Tallahassee Democrat [Boston MA]
July 12, 2003

Pope John Paul II's July 1 appointment of Bishop Sean Patrick O'Malley to head the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston was a wise move, both symbolically and practically.

O'Malley, a Franciscan friar, is quite experienced in leading dioceses fractured by sex-abuse scandal. He spent 10 years in Fall River, Mass., where he effectively settled with victims of sex abuse in an open and direct manner. He also developed a policy for dealing with such abuse cases that became something of a model nationally. Since October, O'Malley had been on a similar assignment as bishop of Palm Beach in the wake of a sex-abuse charge there that involved the previous bishop.

O'Malley is a religious, not a secular, priest. He's a member of a Franciscan religious order, the Capuchin Friars Minor. This order traditionally involves itself in mission work in areas such as Latin America, India and Africa. He is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, and his first post as bishop was in the Virgin Islands. Appearing at a news conference in the simple brown habit of his order, Archbishop O'Malley was an obvious study in contrasts with his regal predecessor, Cardinal Bernard F. Law. The Capuchin Friars take vows of poverty, and the focus of their order is service to the poor. Commonly called Bishop Sean by his people in Fall River, he is known for his humility and accessibility.

But the friar archbishop has his work cut out for him. Fall River is a relatively burned-out textile-mill city, and Palm Beach is, well, Palm Beach. Boston, the archdiocese most shattered by the scandal involving the sexual abuse of young people, is a more complex venue with severe institutional problems. The number of priests is dwindling, Mass attendance is declining, elementary schools are being closed, the church's annual appeal raised only half its goal of $9 million, and a capital campaign to raise $300 million is $100 million short of the goal. Significant numbers of parishes are withholding a portion of weekly collections from the archdiocese's central office. But the most pressing problem O'Malley faces is the resolution of lawsuits brought by almost 500 people who allege sexual abuse.

He has started well. He met with, and listened to, victims of sexual abuse; visited hospital patients; and offered an unequivocal apology, begging forgiveness "for these horrendous sins and crimes that have been committed." He spoke of the pain and shame the church feels. He already has hired Thomas H. Hannigan, an attorney who worked with O'Malley in Fall River and is known for quickly settling such cases, to be his personal adviser. The archbishop designate has made it clear that he wants a swift settlement: "People's lives are more important than money." And O'Malley won't even be officially installed until July 30.

Jim Muller, one of the founders of the lay group Voice of the Faithful, is among those who've been encouraged by O'Malley's appointment: "I think this is a model that will hopefully change leadership styles in the Catholic Church throughout the world." Don't count on that. There aren't enough O'Malleys to go around. Once the current crisis is engaged and the healing really begins, most things in the church will not have changed that much. The conservative doctrinal and institutional bent established the past three decades will continue.

There is, however, a lasting change in the character of Roman Catholicism in the United States that is emerging from this crisis. An educated, informed and proactive laity is expecting a real seat at the table. Groups such as Voice of the Faithful are composed of solid, loyal, mainstream and active Catholics. They are as vital a part of the "People of God" as the hierarchy, a reality that is as true practically (they, finally, pay the bills) as it is theologically. To not listen to them and to not share power with them will mean further trouble ahead.


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