Bishop a 'Healer' and 'Fixer'

By Stephanie Barry
Republican [Springfield MA]
March 10, 2004

In the spring of 1990, New York City's most hallowed haven for runaway boys was looking for a savior of its own.

The Catholic-run Covenant House's reputation was in tatters after its founder and president, the Rev. Bruce Ritter, resigned following allegations of sexual and financial indiscretions. Then-Monsignor Timothy A. McDonnell - dispatched there by the New York Archdiocese's cardinal - was like a balm to the agency's beleaguered staff, according to a longtime leader.

"(McDonnell) is a very affable guy. He was the one who kind of moved around the building and assured everyone that everything would get straightened out," James J. Harnett, chief operating officer at Covenant House, said yesterday.

Called a healer by some and a fixer by others, McDonnell will no doubt be called upon to be both as the newest leader of a Springfield diocese still roiled by sexual abuse allegations against the former bishop.

A kid from the Bronx who worked summers at his father's gas station, McDonnell, 66, is one of two priests born to Irish immigrant parents who sailed here from County Cork. His younger brother, John, is a missionary in the Philippines while McDonnell has risen steadily through the hierarchy of the archdiocese of New York.

An auxiliary New York bishop, he will trade his Madison Avenue residence for the local chancery on Elliot Street by April 1, when he is installed.

"He's a very upbeat guy and that was a very important quality at that time for us. It was a terrible time," said Harnett, a 20-year veteran of Covenant House, who said McDonnell helped usher the agency toward new management and eventual fiscal health.

Ritter, who died in 1999, was never charged, but an internal review found credible allegations of sexual misbehavior with young men, Harnett said. No financial improprieties were uncovered.

As quickly as he was summoned to Springfield by the Vatican, McDonnell was dispatched to the Covenant House within four weeks of Ritter's resignation. While he will permanently head the Springfield Roman Catholic Diocese, he served as interim president at the child welfare agency for six months.

During his first public appearance here yesterday, McDonnell cracked jokes about his affinity for the Yankees and poked fun at his round physique.

"I'll quote my namesake, Tiny Tim - and that's a nickname I'll never have - God bless us, every one," McDonnell said yesterday, his speech bearing traces of his native Bronx.

The Bishop-elect's jovial demeanor stands in stark contrast with his predecessor's. Dupre was slight, shy and often stiff during public appearances. But McDonnell's former parishioners say the cleric's everyman image belies a sweeping intelligence and a rapier wit.

"He represents an extraordinary mixture of empathy, intellect and humility wrapped in one," said Paul Atkinson, a media executive and 15-year parishioner at St. John and St. Mary's Church in Chappaqua, N.Y., McDonnell's last post before he was named auxiliary bishop in 2001.

Though there was no scandal afoot at that parish - nestled in a tony bedroom community that is home to former President Bill Clinton and a wealth of Wall Street brokers - there was an urgent need for a new church when McDonnell arrived in 1993.

Large Sunday Masses were being celebrated in an old school gymnasium. Their new pastor promptly raised close to $2 million and helped draft plans for a new church, according to Atkinson and other parishioners.

"There's a little bit of sadness in New York, but we're sharing and giving Bishop McDonnell to Springfield," said Joan M. Ferroni, pastoral associate for the upstate New York parish.

Prior to his Chappaqua appointment, McDonnell was pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Manhattan, when the neighborhood was transformed from crime-ridden to gentrified. Ordained in 1962, he also served as chairman of the archdiocesan building commission.

Springfield diocesan spokesman Mark E. Dupont said each of the local diocese's eight bishops has possessed qualities that were appropriate for the times. As for McDonnell, his reputed charm, intellect and experience as a trouble-shooter fit the bill.

"He is the perfect recipe for this diocese at this time in our history," Dupont said yesterday.


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