Matching the Moment with the Man

National Catholic Reporter
July 18, 2003

The line tumbled out during Bishop Sean O'Malley's first news conference in Boston: "People's lives are more important than money."

It is a line so obvious for a religious leader that used in the course of a normal Sunday sermon it might elicit a yawn, but in the context of the clergy sex abuse scandal it registered as a refreshingly new approach.

Other lines tumbled out during O'Malley's first meeting, through the media, with the people of Boston and the wider world.

"The entire church feels the pain of this scandal and longs for relief for the families and the communities that have been so shaken by these sad events and by the mishandling of the situation on the part of the church's officials."

"I thank all the faithful Catholics who have stood by the church in these difficult times, who faithfully come to Mass and support the church and who witness to their Catholic faith by lives of discipleship."

"I have always told dioceses and lawyers in the past that settlements are not hush money or extortion or anything other than the rightful indemnification of persons that have suffered gravely at the hands of a priest. Even when I have been told that there is no legal obligation, I have always said, if there is a moral obligation, we must step up to the plate. People's lives are more important than money."

What the new archbishop of Boston does, of course, will be far more important than his words. But his words, his demeanor, his attitude, are mostly what we have to go on at this point. As Joe Feuerherd writes in his analysis (see story), "Central casting would have been hard pressed to match the moment with the man any better."

O'Malley also provided some initial actions. He said he first wanted to listen, that in Fall River, Mass., where he oversaw the settlement of egregious abuse cases, listening was the most important step in dealing with the pain and devising systems and programs to prevent further abuse. So in Boston, one of the first things he did was listen to victims. He also brought in his own lawyer, one with whom he had worked on earlier settlements, and immediately things began to move in a new, positive direction. "The whole tone has changed," said Roderick MacLeish Jr., a lawyer for some 260 victims. Exactly how much the change in tone and lawyers will mean in ultimately settling cases remains to be seen.

From nearly every perspective come reasons for new hope that in O'Malley the pope has found someone profoundly human enough and with the spiritual heft to begin to lead the church of Boston out of the mess.

It is interesting that in Boston, symbolic epicenter of a scandal that has become an institutional nightmare, relief comes not in the form of legal strategy or in one of the abundant ecclesiastical climbers.

Someone in the Vatican, apparently, is finally getting it.

So if this brown-robed, sandaled Friar Tuck is not from central casting, then what?

For years Catholics who understood the dimensions and the damage of the scandal have called for a change in the imperious, secret, exclusive world of the clergy culture, particularly at the level of hierarchy.

O'Malley seems to bring that change with him in one fell swoop. His past demonstrates that he doesn't covet the big house on the hill and the trappings of office. His authority appears to issue not from decrees, but from the seriousness with which he takes his fellow Catholics. The trust he conveys in both the good will and serious purpose of those Catholics seems genuine.

He will not be everyone's favorite bishop. No one can be. His background suggests he will not be a liberal standard-bearer, but that he remains open to greater lay participation in the function of church life. His background also suggests that his preached commitments will flow from lived commitments.

One of the words that Feuerherd consistently encountered in listening to descriptions of the new archbishop of Boston was "humble," in the sense of someone devoid of arrogance.

The common wisdom -- and we certainly share it -- is that O'Malley will have a brief honeymoon and then the job will get tough, perhaps overwhelming. But maybe that common wisdom doesn't account for the effect of holiness, another word used in describing O'Malley. Maybe a bishop who steps out in front of the lawyers, who leads with his pastoral instincts and the demands of our gospels, maybe that bishop gets beyond the honeymoon to a long and rich relationship with a people of God that has already distinguished itself in its patience, its fidelity and its willingness to work through the awful problems at hand.


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