Palm Beach Bishop Inherits Diocese Wracked by Sex Abuse Scandals

By Elizabeth Clarke and Mary McLachlin
Palm Beach Post [Palm Beach Gardens FL]
Downloaded August 28, 2003

PALM BEACH GARDENS - The Catholic Diocese of Palm Beach brought out the trumpets, vestments and plumed hats again Thursday to welcome its second bishop within a year and third within four years.

The mood was clearly lighter this time, as Gerald Michael Barbarito became the spiritual leader of 250,000 Catholics, saying he looked forward to many years as bishop of the five-county diocese. Barbarito, 53, was bishop of the Diocese of Ogdensburg, N.Y. for 3 1/2 years before his Florida appointment.

At one poignant moment during the ceremony at St. Ignatius Loyola Cathedral, Barbarito was embraced by his predecessor, Sean Patrick O'Malley, who was reassigned to the troubled Archdiocese of Boston in July after only 10 months. Such a gesture had not been possible in recent installation ceremonies, muted by the loss of two previous bishops to sex scandals.

Archbishop John Favalora set the tone in his opening remarks when he said drily: "We seem to be meeting like this quite frequently." Laughter burst out, and applause followed as he added: "I think, however, this is enough."

On a roll, Favalora said that when he arrived in Florida 14 years ago, he was the only Italian among the state's seven bishops. The rest were mostly Irish.

With Barbarito's appointment, he said, "the score is Irish 3, Italians 3, with Bishop (John) Ricard (of Pensacola-Tallahassee) as the tie-breaker."

"You, my friends," he told the congregation, "have a fine Italian boy as your new bishop."

Barbarito said he was particularly happy to be installed on the Feast of St. Augustine, who constructed a vision of the church and the world as a City of God. He said he agreed with the 5th Century saint and scholar that "a bishop who sets his heart on the position of eminence rather than the opportunity for service is no bishop.'

"To you, I am a bishop, but with you, I am a Christian," he quoted from Augustine's letters to pastors.

Barbarito polished up his Spanish to deliver a greeting to Hispanic parishioners, and apologized to those of Haitian ancestry that he couldn't speak Creole.

"I will try and learn," he promised.

He built his homily on an architectural metaphor, derived from photographs of restored buildings in the Town of Palm Beach. He described the architecture of the buildings including St. Edward's Catholic and Bethesda-by-the-Sea Episcopal churches as complex, strong, diverse and filled with light, like the people of his new diocese.

"I believe that we are called at this time in the history of the church and in this diocese to a project of preservation and restoration of the City of God the living church," he said.

The metaphor appealed to Phil Lewis, a diocesan patriarch who was around for its formation in 1984 and has seen all its bishops come and go.

"I think he's done his homework," Lewis said. "And he's got a dad-gum good sense of humor and that's important."

As the white-robed bishops, clerics and deacons filed out after the ceremony, Barbarito hurried to the parish hall to begin a long stint of handshaking and greeting his new flock. His sister and family came from New Jersey to see him installed, but his 83-year-old mother, Anna Marie Barbarito, couldn't make the journey from her home in Brooklyn.

"The trip would have just been too much for her," he said. "She might be able to come for a visit, but she's never flown before."

Out in the courtyard, another long line queued up to shake hands with O'Malley, who acknowledged the different tone of Barbarito's installation from his own last October. He took over the diocese after it was shaken by the scandal-forced departures of Bishops Anthony O'Connell in March 2002 and J. Keith Symons in 1998.

"I'm just glad to be here on such a happy occasion," a relaxed and smiling O'Malley said. Claire O'Malley drove up from Deerfield Beach to see her stepson at the cathedral one last time. "We were so sad to see him go, but it seems like he's got a wonderful replacement," she said. " I just wanted to come up and see for myself." This installation was easier for her than the last one, she said, even if it does mean O'Malley no longer lives just up the road. At least she and husband, Ted, got to see their son twice for dinner this week.

Maria Blair and Faye Seneski, members of Sacred Heart in Okeechobee, both were impressed by Barbarito's homily and by his warmth. They enjoyed the lighter mood, but said they've had their fill of installations for a while. "I hope we don't have to come back again," Seneski said, laughing. Barbarito's energy and smiling personality have already had an effect on his staff and others in the diocese.

"I think I'm already enamored," said Mary Beth Quick, principal of All Saints School in Jupiter. "His warmth, his smile, his ability to touch you without being in close proximity to you." "His whole body smiles," added Liz Dougherty, director of human resources for the diocese. They agreed that the happiness of this installation would not have been possible without O'Malley's time here, despite its brevity. They said his calm, humility and peaceful ways helped an aching diocese recover and prepare for Barbarito's more exuberant leadership style.

"Bishop O'Malley brought special gifts to that moment," Quick said. "Now we have moved to a new moment and this bishop brings new gifts."

Barbarito said that when one bishop heard he was being transferred from northern New York to South Florida, he exclaimed: "He's going from Canada to Cuba!" The climate aside, Barbarito faces some other basic lifestyle changes. He moves from a poor, rural diocese in New York with an impressive high-ceilinged, Gothic-style cathedral with stained glass windows to richer, suburban South Florida with a brighter, airy modern building as a cathedral.

His mansion-like residence in Ogdensburg had a cook and housekeeper. In Palm Beach Gardens, his home is smaller than most parish rectories, and he'll do his own dusting and sandwich-making. He admits to favoring Special K for breakfast and a bananas-and-peanut butter sandwich for lunch.

The diocese may have someone in twice a week to cook dinner, said his episcopal secretary, the Rev. Brian King, and King will have a hand at the stove as well.

But do not be surprised to see a smiling man in a Roman collar at the drive-through window at Wendy's ordering a double cheeseburger with fries and a Diet Coke.

Staff writer Tim O'Meilia contributed to this story.

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