Bishop urges healing, vows a settlement
By Michael Paulson firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bishop Sean Patrick O'Malley, the 59-year-old Capuchin friar thrust into the national spotlight by his appointment as archbishop of Boston, introduced himself yesterday to a wounded archdiocese with an apology for the harm done to young people by sexual abuse, a plea for priests to pull together, and a dramatic pledge to settle the hundreds of lawsuits pending against the local church.
''People's lives are more important than money,'' O'Malley told a packed news conference at St. John's Seminary in Brighton.
O'Malley's first day as archbishop-elect was filled with the symbols of his priorities, beginning with Mass and ending with a visit to the sick at Caritas St. Elizabeth's Medical Center. In between came a press conference at which he addressed himself directly to priests, laypeople, and disenfranchised Catholics and a private meeting with a dozen people harmed by clergy sexual abuse.
Late yesterday, he left Boston for Washington, D.C., en route to Palm Beach, Fla. where he has been serving as bishop. He made it clear that he intends to act swiftly upon his installation as archbishop, which will take place some time within the next 60 days.
''As the church is wracked by scandal and crisis, the stakes are very high,'' he said. ''I appeal to all Catholics to help the church to be a wounded healer by healing the divisions in our own ranks, so that we can be a leaven for good in the society in which we live.''
O'Malley's appointment, announced by the Vatican at 6 a.m. EDT yesterday, was hailed by many who have invested in him their hopes for an end to the crisis that is roiling an archdiocese once best known for its history and influence, but now world famous for a legacy of abuse.
But his honeymoon may be short. Yesterday a handful of protesters gathered outside the seminary grounds, on Commonwealth Avenue, expressing skepticism about O'Malley's record and independence. Leaders of the lay group Voice of the Faithful welcomed him, but said they want to see change soon.
Upon his installation, O'Malley will become the sixth archbishop of Boston. Never has one begun his work under such difficult conditions. In addition to the hundreds of legal claims by alleged victims and the unresolved issue of what to do with two dozen accused priests, the archdiocese faces the prospect of closing schools and parishes in the face of declining participation in Mass, a shrinking number of priests, and a dramatic plunge in fund-raising as a result of both the weak economy and the abuse crisis.
O'Malley replaces Bishop Richard G. Lennon, who has been serving as administrator of the Archdiocese of Boston since Cardinal Bernard F. Law resigned in December over criticism of his failure to remove abusive priests from ministry.
Lennon will continue to serve as administrator until O'Malley's installation. He will then return to his post as an auxiliary bishop, but he is likely to be a candidate for bishop in another diocese. Law is living at a convent in Maryland and remains a member of the College of Cardinals in Rome, serving on Vatican committees. He is entitled to vote in the next election for pope.
O'Malley referred to this moment in archdiocesan history as ''this very difficult time'' and said of his own career that ''the path has never been easy, but today it seems overwhelming.''
''The devastating effects of the sexual exploitation of minors by members of the clergy have wounded us all, beginning with the victims themselves and their families, who suffer the poisonous aftermath of abuse,'' he said. ''The entire church feels the pain of this scandal, and longs for some relief for the families and communities that have been so shaken by these sad events, and by the mishandling of these situations on the part of the church's officials.''
O'Malley is no stranger to this type of crisis. In 1992, he was appointed bishop of Fall River to repair a diocese reeling from revelations that the Rev. James R. Porter was a serial pedophile. And just last fall he was appointed bishop of Palm Beach after the two previous bishops quit because of allegations that they themselves had molested minors.
Yesterday, O'Malley said he would make child protection ''our paramount goal.'' He offered no specific solutions, saying he still needs to acquaint himself with the situation in Boston and that he planned to listen closely to ''bishops, priests, parish councils and lay leaders.''
O'Malley helped broker settlements in Fall River with a plaintiffs' lawyer, Roderick MacLeish Jr., who now represents many alleged Boston victims. The archbishop-elect said, ''We are all anxious for the financial settlements with those who have suffered from sexual abuse.'' He noted, in what might have been seen as a warning to Boston's insurance carriers, that in Fall River he had sued his diocesan insurance company to get money to pay victims.
''I have always told diocesan lawyers in the past that settlements are not hush money or extortion or anything other than the rightful indemnification of persons who have suffered gravely at the hands of a priest,'' he said. ''Even when I have been told that there is no legal obligation, I have always said, if there is a moral obligation, then we must step up to the plate.''
Lawyers representing alleged victims were hopeful but wary.
''We've now heard speeches from Bernard Cardinal Law, from Bishop Lennon, and from Bishop O'Malley, and nothing has happened yet,'' said Mitchell Garabedian, who represents more than 100 people with claims against the archdiocese. ''But my clients are cautiously optimistic.''
O'Malley acknowledged that the stakes in Boston are high, calling the number of alleged victims and the potential cost of settlements ''staggering'' and said he also wants to protect ''the essential elements of our mission, especially our mission to give people the good news of the Gospel and to serve the poor, the sick, and the marginalized.''
In an apparent effort to show what he meant, O'Malley met in the afternoon with a group chosen by the archdiocesan office that handles outreach to those who allege they have been abused by clergy.
''In a very short period of time he listened to a lot of heart-wrenching stories, and it affected him,'' said Rodney Ford, the father of an alleged victim of abuse by Rev. Paul R. Shanley. ''You could tell it affected him, just by the emotions in his face. You can read someone's face and really get a sense of how someone's feeling. He showed it on his face.''
Some who attended the meeting said that O'Malley had apologized to them and had prayed, reciting the ''Our Father'' with the group.
''He's only been here a couple of hours, and he's already talking with the victims,'' said David Lyko, 44, of Dracut, an alleged victim of the Rev. Joseph Birmingham. ''If he makes some changes, I'll be in the first pew, and I know I won't be alone.''
After that meeting, O'Malley went to St. Elizabeth's Medical Center in Brighton, where he wanted to visit an ailing friend, but also visited others.
''He just made me feel so great,'' said Maureen Iannoni, a mother of four from Walpole who is undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. Iannoni said that she knew the archbishop-elect from his days in Fall River and that she wholeheartedly supported his appointment here.
''I think it will be good for people who are looking for healing in the church,'' she said. ''He's wonderful.''
O'Malley's appointment was hailed by Catholic and Protestant religious leaders around the state.
''His experience, good judgment, and effectiveness in dealing with the present problems in the church will be a great asset to the archdiocese,'' Bishop Daniel P. Reilly of Worcester declared in a statement, while Bishop Thomas L. Dupre of Springfield said ''I am sure Bishop O'Malley will bring to Boston the talents needed to guide that great archdiocese and help bring healing to all its people, especially the victims of misconduct.''
Law, whose downfall made possible O'Malley's elevation, issued a brief statement of congratulations, saying ''my prayers are with the new archbishop, and with the archdiocese.''
Other religious leaders in the state, many of whom have expressed sorrow at the crisis in the Archdiocese of Boston and concern that it is affecting the credibility of all Christian denominations, welcomed O'Malley back to Massachusetts.
''The appointment of Bishop Sean Patrick O'Malley as the new archbishop of Boston is good news for the Roman Catholic community and good news for all of the religious communities of our city,'' said Bishop M. Thomas Shaw, the head of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts.
O'Malley addressed himself directly to priests during the press conference, which was broadcast live on local television and radio.
''I know the toll that the pain and embarrassment of the scandal has taken on your ministry,'' he said to priests and seminarians. ''I ask you to pull together. ... Your role is essential in the life of our church. ... The whole Catholic community wants holy priests, happy priests, hard-working priests.''
O'Malley laid the blame for the abuse crisis at the feet of church officials who did not understand the impact of sexual abuse on children.
''There was not an awareness in the past of the profound damage done to victims,'' he said. ''I think if people had realized that, they would have taken this problem much more seriously. But I think they saw it as a moral problem and not as a sickness or a compulsion on the part of the predators. And, as I say, I don't think there was even any inkling of how devastating such an experience is for a child.''
His comments were well received by priests, many of whom watched O'Malley on television.
''I liked what I heard,'' said the Rev. Peter Casey, pastor of St. Agatha Church in Milton. ''Bishop O'Malley seems to be straightforward. ... I believe he will listen to all, and I believe he is open-minded.''
The Rev. Randy Sachs, academic dean at Weston Jesuit School of Theology, also watched O'Malley on television, and said: ''He strikes me as a very genuine and sincere man, not arrogant or self-important. If he is truly approachable and open to the laity and to the priests and lay ministers of the diocese, his appointment will be the answer to many heartfelt prayers.''
Even some priests who didn't see the broadcast expressed relief at the end of uncertainty and the promise of change.
''What I'm experiencing personally, in my parish community, and among priest friends is a sense of relief that the guessing games are over, a new reason to hope that serious and painful issues might be resolved, a willingness to step forward with this new man and work with him,'' said the Rev. Austin Fleming, pastor of Our Lady Help of Christians Parish in Concord.
O'Malley also addressed disenfranchised Catholics, saying, ''At times like these, we need to pull together as a church.
''The Catholic faith and practice has built a culture in our people of New England, [sustaining] virtues of honesty, solidarity, social justice, service to the poor, the sick, the suffering, protection for the weak, for the unborn,'' he said.
O'Malley, who is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, answered two questions in Spanish, expressing his enthusiasm about working with immigrants and asking for the support of Hispanics.
Globe correspondents Nicole Fuller and Donovan Slack and Michael Rezendes
and Monica Rhor of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.
Original material copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.