Crisis Affirmed Bishop's Calling

By Gregory D. Kesich
Portland Press Herald [Portland ME]
Downloaded March 28, 2004

The young priest was confused. He found himself drawn to a woman in his parish, and attracted by family life he had renounced when he accepted ordination.

"I started to wonder, does this mean that I somehow missed the signals," Malone recalled. "Does this mean that God is really calling me to marriage, or does he want me to be a priest?"

For a young man who pretended to consecrate Necco wafers as a child in the attic of his family's Beverly, Mass., home, this was a crisis.

Malone asked for a voluntary leave of absence for a year, during which he left his ministry and sampled a different life. When the year was over, Malone came back to a vocation to which he has devoted himself the last three decades.

On Wednesday, Malone will take the next formal step in his journey, when he is installed as the 11th bishop of the Portland Diocese. He says the experience of walking away from the priesthood will help define the type of leadership he will provide to Maine's 234,000 Roman Catholics.

He comes to Maine at a difficult time for the priesthood, and for the church in general.

Three years after the first child sex-abuse revelations made the news, it is now known that the Boston Archdiocese, where Malone has served his entire career, systematically hushed up allegations of sexual abuse of children. Offending priests were often quietly reassigned to new parishes, where some abused again.

The ensuing scandal has spread to nearly every diocese in the country, including Maine. A recent report by the state Attorney General's office revealed credible allegations of sexual abuse of minors against 60 priests and other church people over the previous 75 years.

The revelations have cast suspicion on every priest, and raised doubts about church leaders who seemed more concerned about protecting abusive priests than their victims.

Coming from Boston, Malone knows all about the scandal. Several times in 2002, he traveled to parishes to announce that the priest had been removed because of an allegation of sexual abuse. Malone urged parents to talk to their children, to see if they were carrying any secrets that should come out.

Those announcements, Malone said, were the most difficult things he had to do since becoming an auxiliary bishop in 2000. His work in Maine may be even harder.

"I hope to bring some healing to all the people who have been affected by this," Malone said in a telephone interview last week from his Weymouth, Mass., office. "Obviously, first and foremost, there are the victims themselves. But also the other parishioners, because many of them have been wounded by this mess."

He is also concerned about priests.

"We were all damaged," Malone said. "There are many good guys, the majority really, and many are still hurting. They are going about their work, but it's hard to recover."

Malone says there have been other difficult times for the church and he hopes that something good can come out of the current struggles.

"One hope is what will come out of this, is the way that our church deals with this acts as a leaven that will affect the larger society, because this is a much bigger problem," he said. "It's a huge challenge."

It's one Malone plans to tackle with openness. In a telephone interview while he was supervising a moving crew, Malone talked frankly about his career, while an aged black Labrador named Jonah competed for his attention. To keep the conversation going, the bishop bought him off with dog biscuits.

Malone, 58, grew up in Beverly, a city of 40,000 on Boston's North Shore. His father worked for the nearby Sylvania Electric plant, and his mother took care of her two children.

Malone was a boy who engineered complicated games. Once he set up a laboratory in the attic, until experiments started leaking through the floor. Later he built a darkroom to develop photographs.

The attic was also where he played priest, with his sister serving as his altar boy.

"If he wasn't a priest, I think he would have become a veterinarian or a college professor," said his sister, Harriet Malone. "He could have done anything, he was so creative."

After graduating from St. John's Prep, a Catholic high school in Danvers, Mass., Malone chose the priesthood and enrolled in St. John's Seminary.

In 1972, he was ordained and assigned to a large parish in Stoneham, Mass., where he began to have second thoughts about his calling.

Malone was in his early 20s, and became friends with young men and women in the parish who were about his age and getting ready for marriage and family life.

Malone said he found himself particularly attracted to one woman, and began to feel that he might not be suited for the priesthood.

It was a difficult time for him, his sister recalled.

"People sometimes forget that priests are very human," Harriet Malone said. "It took a lot of thought and prayer, but it was a very healthy thing for him to do."

Malone said he went to an older priest in the diocese, who advised him to consider taking a leave of absence. He went on a retreat in a Trappist monastery and prayed. Finally, he asked for time away.

For more than a year, Malone shed the Roman collar and took a job teaching high school. He enjoyed his time away, but at the end, he decided that his place was in the church.

Malone said his leave of absence now seems like a minor step in what has been a long career.

After returning to the priesthood he has taught theology at St. John's Seminary, served as a chaplain at Harvard University and the director of religious education for the Archdiocese of Boston. He was elevated to auxiliary bishop for the South Shore in 2000. In February, the Vatican named him as bishop for Maine.

But Malone also sees that short time away as a significant event that has influenced the rest of his ministry, from the kinds of jobs he's taken to the way he counsels priests and seminary students.

It also made him more sympathetic to the men and woman who live lives of faith outside the clergy.

Thirty years ago, a young priest wondering if he could live a celibate life might be told to ignore those feelings, Malone said last week. As a teacher and later a seminary administrator, Malone said he would tell his students to examine them and decide if they are in the right job.

"People used to think, if you have normal human feelings, you should suppress them," Malone said. "This taught me to pay attention to that stuff. What is God saying to me? That is the faith question that we have to resolve."

Since the sex abuse scandal broke, dissident Catholics have questioned whether the church's historical commitment to a celibate clergy may have contributed to the problem.

Most notably, Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former Benedictine Monk, has written that the church's unwillingness to examine the sexuality of its priests provided cover for predators among the ranks.

Malone disagrees. Child abusers are found in all professions, he said, not just the priesthood. And many perpetrators are married.

"I don't think celibacy is the key here," Malone said.

Malone's "period of discernment" is quite common among young priests, said the Rev. Edward Burns, an official with the National Conference of Roman Catholic Bishops who oversees Vocation and Priestly Formation in its Washington, D.C., headquarters.

"It's so healthy," Burns said. Time away, he said, "really brings us to the point of looking at our vocation. In our calling, there are great responsibilities, as the bishop knows. Everyone's call is different, because our relationship with God is unique."

That Malone will talk about the experience at all sets him apart from most bishops, said Eric Convey, a religion writer for the Boston Herald. But Malone is unusually open for a bishop, Convey said.

"He's very conservative theologically, but he doesn't come across as a thoughtless soldier," Convey said.

That opinion was shared by a colleague who could have been an adversary. Thomas Ferrick, the Humanist chaplain at Harvard, who teaches a doctrine based on ethical behavior, but not necessarily a belief in God, said he enjoyed his time working with Malone and their discussions on theology.

"We had no fireworks," Ferrick recalls. "I remember his friendliness, and his sincerity and his care about his duty. He was very personable and I give him very high marks."

Malone also has his critics. Members of Voice of the Faithful, a church reform group that started in Boston in wake of the sex-abuse scandal, say that like other bishops in the Boston Archdiocese, Malone has refused to meet with them. One member said Malone failed to return 10 phone messages that were left at his office.

"When he saw it was Voice of the Faithful, he would have nothing to do with it," said Sheldon Daly of Hingham, Mass. "It was typical" behavior for an archdiocese bishop, he said.

The Maine chapter of Voice of the Faithful plans to mark Malone's installation on Wednesday with a memorial service for abuse victims who have died, which will be held outside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception that morning.

Local member Paul Kendrick said he will continue to push Malone to release more information about the abusive priests in Maine.

Malone said his short time away from the priesthood affected everything he has done since then.

"It convinced me that what I am called to is the priesthood. It became very clear to me that this was my calling," he said. "I think it is something that influenced the whole rest of my ministry."

Malone says that a priest shortage in Maine will be another huge challenge of his ministry in Maine. There are now 95 diocesan priests spread out among 135 parishes and 44 missions. If current trends persist until 2010, the diocese estimates that there will be as few as 70 priests in the state.

Malone said as a result of the priest shortage there is already a more prominent role for lay people in parishes, where people are stepping in and doing the work that was once done by priests. That will only grow, he said, and it is a positive thing for the church.

But there is a need for ordained ministry. Malone believes that others will follow his path.

"It is a tough time in the profession, there is no doubt about it," Malone said. "I'm convinced that God is still calling people to the priesthood, but the world we live in is such a noisy one, it's hard to hear that call. But I certainly believe that the Lord will be heard."

emailtag Staff Writer Gregory D. Kesich can be contacted at 791-6336 or at: