New Boston Archbishop Wins Praise in First Weeks on the Job

By Denise Lavoie
Associated Press, carried in Providence Journal [Boston MA]
August 17, 2003

BOSTON (AP) - He came to lead an archdiocese fractured by a clergy sex abuse scandal, a Franciscan friar wearing sandals and a simple brown robe who promised to shepherd the church through one of the worst episodes in its history.

During his first two weeks on the job, Archbishop Sean O'Malley has lived up to his reputation as a turnaround specialist for troubled dioceses.

He shook up the church's legal team, shunned the mansion that had come to symbolize the church's arrogance, and made a $55 million offer to settle more than 500 lawsuits that have dogged the church for the past 18 months.

"Archbishop Sean," as he likes to be called, has made a splash in Boston. But whether he can fix the deep-rooted problems of the Boston archdiocese remains to be seen, according to both supporters and critics.

"Unlike his predecessors, he knows how to appease the public a lot better. What he's done so far has a lot of symbolism, but my fear is that the public will be lulled into thinking that's all that's needed to fix this and it's just going to go away," said Ann Hagan Webb, a victim of clergy sexual abuse who heads the New England chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

O'Malley, 59, replaced Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned as archbishop in December after nearly a year of alarming revelations that he and other top church officials shifted priests from parish to parish rather than removing them from ministry.

He has won accolades from many victims, priests and ordinary Catholics. In his homily at his installation Mass last month, O'Malley begged forgiveness from those who have been victimized, and reached out to priests and the laity, who he acknowledged have also struggled with the crisis.

O'Malley also asked Catholics to remember the good works of the church and to focus anew on helping the poor and downtrodden.

"When he talked about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and sheltering the homeless, that wasn't directed just at (abuse) survivors, but at the Catholic church and the community," said Gary Bergeron, 41, who says he was sexually abused by the late Rev. Joseph Birmingham at the Church of St. Michael in Lowell during the 1970s.

"Every parishioner in every church in every pew has felt the weight of this, so he needs to lead all of us. I think he's making steps in that direction," said Bergeron. "He's done more in the last two weeks than his predecessors did in the last year and a half."

The changes started even before O'Malley officially took charge. Within days of the July 1 announcement of his appointment by the Vatican, attorneys for alleged abuse victims described a "change in attitude" and a "new day" in their long-stalled settlement negotiations with the church.

O'Malley called in Thomas Hannigan Jr., a Boston lawyer who'd worked with O'Malley in the early 1990s to settle more than 100 abuse cases in the Fall River diocese, where O'Malley had been sent to clean up the fallout left by the Rev. James Porter, a serial pedophile.

O'Malley was plucked from Fall River less than a year ago and sent to lead the Diocese of Palm Beach, Fla., where his two immediate predecessors resigned after admitting they'd molested minors.

Nine days after he was installed as archbishop of Boston, O'Malley offered a $55 million settlement to the 542 alleged victims who have sued the archdiocese. He also announced he would shun the cardinal's mansion and live instead in the rectory of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in a working-class neighborhood in Boston's South End.

"The atmosphere was one of anxiety and consternation - that's because promises were made that were not fulfilled. Archbishop O'Malley came in and he was able to alter the frame of reference for victims," said attorney Jeff Newman, whose firm represents about half of the 542 alleged victims. "It's a huge change."

The victims' lawyers are currently drafting a counterproposal to O'Malley's $55 million offer.

Newman said O'Malley not only met with victims before he was installed, but also instructed church lawyers to abandon plans to subpoena therapists of alleged victims, a hardball legal tactic that had infuriated victims.

During his installation Mass, O'Malley's pointed reference to "so many good priests, struggling to make sense of it all" drew sustained applause from hundreds of priests who attended the ceremony.

He also won respect when he spent his first two weekends on the job celebrating a Mass in Spanish in the heavily immigrant city of Lawrence, and a Mass at St. Michael's in Lowell, where at least 54 people have claimed they were molested by Birmingham.

"I think he's hit a home run and a hole-in-one pretty much at the same time," said the Rev. Bernard P. McLaughlin, a pastor from Canton who was highly critical of Cardinal Law.

But McLaughlin and others say they are cautious in their optimism because O'Malley's only been on the job a little over two weeks and has monumental tasks ahead.

"He certainly seems to be making the right decisions. But so far is just so far," McLaughlin said. "It's a tough job. He's got the priests on the one hand and the laity on the other, and I'm sure the Vatican is watching very carefully."

Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said O'Malley has already made substantial gestures that are more than symbolic. But he still has a lot of work ahead to keep the momentum going.

"Obviously, it's not all going to be sweetness and light," Shaw said.

"He's got to be a good dialogue partner with alienated and skeptical and unhappy priests and lay people of the archdiocese of Boston," he said. "He's got to listen to people, but he's got to do more than listen. He's got to respond to what people say in ways that are pastorally sensitive and are the right answer for a bishop - a leader of the church - to give."


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