Diocese to Install New Bishop

By Tim O'Meilia
Palm Beach Post [Palm Beach FL]
August 24, 2003

The joke around the Roman Catholic diocesan offices in Palm Beach Gardens is that they ought to hire themselves out as consultants.

"Bishops' Installations Inc.," said a laughing Margaret Owers, who works in the liturgy office. "We should go into business."

This week, for the third time in four years, the Diocese of Palm Beach will install a new episcopal leader. This time it's Bishop Gerald Barbarito, who is coming from the Diocese of Ogdensburg in upstate New York. In fact, since the Palm Beach Diocese was founded in 1984, it has had more bishops (five) than Cardinal Newman High School in West Palm Beach has had football coaches (one).

As Owers was when departed Bishop Sean O'Malley was installed in October, she is in charge of vestments for the up to 250 priests who will attend the invitation-only ceremony at 2 p.m. Thursday in the St. Ignatius Loyola Cathedral.

"Each time it's getting easier because it's still fresh in our minds," Owers said. "I'm not getting a heart attack this time."

She's awaiting a UPS shipment of borrowed vestments from the national Catholic shrine in Washington, D.C. She has recruited a small squad of volunteers to iron the clothing when it arrives.

Installed during blizzard

Barbarito, 53, replaces O'Malley, here only eight months before being whisked away to deal with the sexual abuse scandals of the Archdiocese of Boston. O'Malley had been sent here to soothe the anger and restore the faith in the Palm Beach Diocese, whose two previous bishops resigned amid admissions of their own abuse of minors.

When Barbarito arrives in town Monday, he will move into the same small house where O'Malley lived, a few steps from diocesan headquarters. The refrigerator will be stocked with Diet Coke, and the bishop may be adding his own design touches to the furnishings. He prefers burgundy accents.

He'll unpack boxes and boxes of philosophy, political theory, biography and theology books. "We may have to order some more bookcases," said the Rev. Brian King, his episcopal secretary.

During the week ahead, Barbarito will spend his time meeting with diocesan staff, rehearsing for the installation ceremony and entertaining his mother and sister, who are coming from Brooklyn and New Jersey, unless Mother Nature has other plans.

"You know, when I was installed here (in Ogdensburg), it was in the middle of a blizzard," Barbarito said during a phone interview last week. "This time, we'll probably have a tropical storm."

After the installation, he will host an open reception at the St. Ignatius parish hall.

"The first thing I want to do is meet people, listen and learn and get to know as much as I can," he said.

During the 10 days after the ceremony, he is scheduled to visit eight strategically located parishes in the five-county diocese, where he will say evening Mass and meet the parishioners. The bishop also will visit the diocese's three parochial Catholic high schools. During the day, he will meet with diocesan department heads.

In between, he'll try to find a route for his daily walk, a routine that endeared him to those in his New York diocese, who enjoyed it when he popped in unexpectedly.

"I grew up in New York City, in Brooklyn, where it can get unbearable in summer, so I'm somewhat familiar with the heat," he said, laughing.

Sudden changes unlikely

Barbarito is unlikely to make sudden changes. "I don't see anything urgently to do. We'll certainly try to build on what Bishop O'Malley has begun," he said.

The Rev. Chuck Notabartolo, the diocesan vicar general, said Barbarito "takes his time to assess and learn what's in place. If it's working smoothly, he'll probably let it go. But he's not shy about making changes. He's going to have to get to know a lot of people in a short time."

Notabartolo, who was appointed by O'Malley in February, was asked to stay on by Barbarito, as was King.

Barbarito said he is happy with the steps O'Malley has taken to deal with the sex scandal: establishing a board to review allegations against priests and offering to meet with victims. "That's a priority," Barbarito said, "getting this all behind us and taking care of the victims."

At least one critic, attorney and former church benefactor Ed Ricci, thinks more must be done. "There's still no internal affairs procedure to investigate his own troops rather than waiting for victims to identify people," he said.

Barbarito, universally described as a "people person," impressed many Catholics who saw his July 1 news conference or met him during a one-day visit Aug. 4.

"From everything I've heard of him, he's going to be good. He doesn't seem to have that bunker mentality," said former Florida Senate President Phil Lewis, who also headed the review committee.

Mary Cleary Ierardi, vice president of the board of Catholic Charities, said, "Everyone was disappointed when Bishop O'Malley was called away. We had just gotten to know him and what he planned to do. Bishop Barbarito has got excellent communication skills and seems a caring person who will make an excellent spiritual leader."

Fund-raising is key

The new bishop also may need some untapped money-raising skills.

Contributions last year reached $5.8 million in the Diocese of Palm Beach, short of the $6.25 million goal, not including money given directly to parishes.

Stewardship director Ed Laughlin said there was no way to tell how much could be blamed on tough economic times and how much on the church scandals.

"Fewer than 1 percent of donors wrote us and canceled any pledge because of the situation in the church," he said, "but there's no way of telling why others didn't fulfill pledges."

Asking for money in the poor, rural Ogdensburg Diocese calls for a different approach than in Palm Beach, where brown-robed O'Malley mixed with ease with the ultra-rich at diocesan charity events at The Breakers. Diocesan spokesman Sam Barbaro told a reporter O'Malley had a special talent: "He can schmooze with the best of them."

A 'quiet approach'

Barbarito has "a very quiet approach. He's really a hands-off bishop but whatever we asked him to do, he did," said Janice Schoen, development director for the Ogdensburg Diocese. That included attending eight money-raising dinners each August in the far-flung diocese and asking for contributions.

"Bishop Barbarito is very sensitive to people's personal needs," said the Rev. Douglas Lucia, Barbarito's assistant in New York. "He trusts them to give what they're able to give."

Besides cranking up contributions, Ricci said the diocese needs independent audits on the parish and diocesan levels. That would ensure that something like the $400,000 embezzlement by a former diocesan finance director in the early 1990s isn't kept secret from lay financial committees.

"The question is does he have the leadership and courage to investigate his own ranks? Until then, he's not going to restore the confidence of donors like me," Ricci said.

One area where Barbarito will find a more pleasant scenario is in Catholic education. Barbarito had to consolidate several grade schools for lack of enrollment during his 3 1/2 years in upstate New York.

In South Florida, the diocese opened a new grade school, All Saints, in Jupiter this month and is surveying parishioners in Wellington and Royal Palm Beach with thoughts of building new schools there in the next five years, said Catholic schools Superintendent Sister Joan Dawson.

"It's a matter of finding the money to build," she said.

There's also uncertainty with a new face, however amiable he seems.

"We're all curious," said Susan Cutaia, a statewide leader of the Council of Catholic Women, who hopes Barbarito is as willing to travel to Tallahassee and lobby for legislative change as O'Malley was. "We all want to meet him and see what he's about.

"I noticed that after his press conference he rushed back to Brooklyn to have a pasta dinner with his mother. That bodes well for us," Cutaia said. "A good friend of mine who is Jewish told me, 'What could be better than a Jewish boy from Brooklyn? Maybe an Italian boy from Brooklyn.' "

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