Catholics Hoping New Boston Bishop O'Malley Quells Sex-Abuse Crisis

By Stevenson Swanson
Chicago Tribune [Boston MA]
July 29, 2003

BOSTON - (KRT) - Draped in the regalia of the church, an assembly of cardinals, bishops and the Knights of Columbus will furnish the pomp and pageantry when a humble friar formally becomes the leader of this city's Catholic Archdiocese this week.

But another group among the 2,500 guests that Bishop Sean Patrick O'Malley has invited to his installation ceremony will provide a sober reminder that this is far from a triumphant moment in the American Catholic Church.

Sitting in the pews of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross will be many Boston-area Catholics who say they were sexually abused by predator priests while the leaders of the Boston archdiocese conspired to keep the crimes a secret.

That they were invited to the Wednesday ceremony is a sign of the seriousness with which the unconventional O'Malley views the pervasive scandal that has made the nation's forth-largest archdiocese the focal point of the gravest crisis in the history of American Catholicism.

That many of the victims are planning to attend is a testament to the wary hope of this city's 2.1 million Catholics that the worst may be over.

They are counting on O'Malley, who has led two smaller dioceses involved by prior sexual abuse crises, to restore stability to an archdiocese that has been pummeled by repeated revelations of misconduct since the scandal erupted in January 2002.

"In a short time, we will know if he is the man who can lead us out of this crisis," said Rodney Ford, the father of an alleged abuse victim. "At this point, if he can't ... the only person who could would be Jesus Christ himself."

Last week, Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly said that his office had found evidence that at least 789 children had been sexually abused by 250 priests and church workers of the archdiocese since 1940. The total number of abuse cases was probably more than 1,000, said Reilly, who based that assertion on a 16-month review of 30,000 pages of church records and 100 hours of grand jury testimony.

Reilly said he could not press criminal charges against archdiocesan officials for covering up the scandal because until last year Massachusetts did not have a law requiring church leaders to report sexual abuse to authorities.

But the archdiocese faces about 500 civil suits from alleged abuse victims. Church observers say that settling those suits must be O'Malley's first priority, but even if he succeeds, the remaining items on his to-do list are daunting.

The Boston archdiocese is reeling from plunging attendance and donations, with contributions to the diocese-wide fund down 50 percent last year. Budget cuts have closed several Catholic schools, and the specter of bankruptcy has been raised, given that settling the lawsuits could cost $100 million.

Just as serious for the long-term health of the archdiocese is the legacy of O'Malley's predecessor, Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned in December but remains active in Vatican affairs. Law's autocratic manner and secretive policies led to revolts among clerics and parishioners, who are demanding a greater say in running the archdiocese.

But if any prelate is suited for such a job, it could be O'Malley, 59, who prefers the rough, brown habit of his Capuchin Franciscan order over the silks and satins of official vestments and who invites his flock to address him as "Bishop Sean."

"His qualifications are perfectly matched to Boston," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Catholic magazine America and author of "Inside the Vatican." "He's got credibility, he's got experience, and he's got exactly the kind of personality that's needed to begin the healing in Boston."

Apart from O'Malley's experience in handling sexual abuse crises, his appointment is in line with Pope John Paul II's practice of appointing prelates who adhere closely to his conservative stance on doctrinal questions, such as abortion, which O'Malley has often referred to as "the first abuse of human life."

"On all of the hot-button issues, he will be right where the Vatican is," said Jim Post, president of Voice of the Faithful, a lay group that is pressing for greater transparency in the archdiocese's financial and administrative affairs.

Still, O'Malley's appointment came as a surprise. The native of Lakewood, Ohio, was named in October as the bishop of Palm Beach, Fla., a relatively small diocese where two previous bishops had resigned in disgrace after admissions of sexual molestation.

In his brief Florida tenure, O'Malley earned praise for making clear that he would not tolerate sexual misconduct among the clergy. He also began the process of implementing tough policies similar to those he established in his previous post as bishop of Fall River, Mass., where he served for 10 years.

The gritty mill town south of Boston was the scene of one of the first major clerical sex scandals when it was revealed in 1992 that the Rev. James Porter had assaulted more than 100 victims. Porter is serving a prison sentence of 18 to 20 years.

During the height of the crisis in Fall River, attorney Roderick MacLeish recalled that O'Malley showed up unexpectedly one night at a meeting of the victims. MacLeish, who is representing 260 plaintiffs in Boston, advised O'Malley that he shouldn't be there without the diocese's attorney.

"I just want to be here and listen," O'Malley said. "Would that be all right?"

That willingness to listen to the concerns of victims and parishioners was a hallmark of his time in Fall River, according to Mayor Edward Lambert.

"He was very visible in the parishes," Lambert said. "And, frankly, he appeared to be much more at home with the common folk he served as opposed to the hierarchy."

As part of its settlement with victims, the diocese implemented policies to reduce the likelihood of further sexual misconduct by clerics or other diocesan employees and to end the widespread practice of shuffling accused priests to new parishes.

And since the mid-1990s, the diocese has conducted about 22,000 mandatory background checks on employees and volunteers, looking for records of not only prior sexual misconduct but also drug dealing, substance abuse and other crimes.

"It's a deterrent," said Arlene McNamee, executive director of Fall River's Catholic Social Services. "There's no such thing as a foolproof solution to this, but we have had people walk out of training programs rather than submit to background checks, and that's a good thing."

O'Malley came under fire in September from the district attorney in Fall River, who accused the bishop of foot-dragging in releasing the files of nearly two dozen priests who had been accused of sexual abuse in prior decades.

O'Malley said he had not realized that the district attorney wanted to investigate the old cases. The incident leads attorney Mitchell Garbedian, who is representing 114 plaintiffs in sexual abuse cases involving clergy of the Boston archdiocese, to temper his optimism that a new era is about to begin.

"For decades, the leaders of the archdiocese have allowed priests within their ranks to sexually abuse children," Garbedian said. "It may take him years to change the bureaucracy. It may be more than he can handle."

Attorneys for abuse victims give O'Malley high marks for hiring a Boston attorney with a reputation for settling abuse cases, indicating a new willingness on the part of the archdiocese to resolve the lawsuits.

And he has not yet decided whether to move into the suburban mansion where his predecessors lived, leaving open the possibility that the property may be sold to help pay for settling the lawsuits.

The encouraging early statements need to be followed up quickly with more substantive changes before the Boston archdiocese can begin to restore the trust of the city's Catholics, according to Post, the leader of Voice of the Faithful.

"It's important not just for Boston, but for the whole church," he said. "We were the model for the blackest chapter for the church in this country, and we're hoping we can become the brightest model for healing the church."

Tribune correspondent Ron DePasquale contributed to this report


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