The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date: July 18, 2003
Franciscan bishop's appointment to Boston seen as a welcome surprise
By JOE FEUERHERD
Boston Archbishop-elect Sean OMalley need not look beyond the tradition of his Franciscan religious order for a job description: Go rebuild my church which, as you can see, is falling to ruin.
Francis of Assisi, it is said, received that mandate from the crucifix above him as he prayed in the Chapel of San Damiano early in the 13th century.
Nearly 800 years later, OMalleys task appears no less daunting than that of Francis himself. He inherits a 2 million-member archdiocese fairly described as approaching ruin: Mass attendance at record lows, lay activists clamoring for a greater role in church affairs, contributions plummeting, a clergy unafraid to publicly question its leaders, and, not least, more than 500 pending sexual abuse claims against the archdiocese.
Since the December 2002 resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law, Boston Catholics viewed the selection of a new archbishop as a critical moment in the crisis facing their church. Still, in the six months leading up to OMalleys selection, there was more fear than hope concerning the impending appointment. Few -- liberals or conservatives, traditionalists or modernizers -- believed the Vatican would, or could, name an archbishop in whom Bostonians could place their trust.
No one sees a way out, lamented Fr. Walter Cuenin, pastor of Our Lady Help of Christians Parish in Newton, in early June.
And then, on July 1, came the OMalley appointment. On several levels, not least that the 59-year-old OMalley had been brought in to reform the scandal-plagued Palm Beach, Fla., diocese less than nine months earlier, the appointment was a surprise -- but by nearly all indications a welcome one.
Known for his capable handling of sex abuse scandals when he served as bishop of neighboring Fall River, Mass., from 1992-2002, OMalley had instant credibility.
It appears that they perceived the big need here to be someone who could come in and heal the situation and settle the cases -- someone who has a track record that people could have confidence in, and it sure looks like he has that, said Kennedy School of Government professor Mary Jo Bane, a frequent critic of the Boston hierarchy in the 19 months since the scandals became unrelenting front-page news.
OMalleys commitment to Capuchin Franciscan ideals (the Capuchins, a branch of the Franciscans, were founded as a reform movement within the order in 1526) was well received in an archdiocese accustomed to imperious leadership.
As bishop of Palm Beach, OMalley declined to move into the bishops residence, living instead in a modest house in Palm Beach Gardens. Would the new archbishop, the media inquired at a July 1 news conference, live in the cardinals Commonwealth Avenue mansion?
OMalleys reluctance to be associated with the archdioceses most visible symbol of hierarchical remoteness was unmistakable. Obviously, as a Franciscan brother, I prefer to have the simplest quarters. OMalleys garb -- he favors the traditional brown Capuchin habit and sandals -- provided yet another indication that the city was getting a different kind of archbishop.
Boston Catholics and those outside the archdiocese who view it as a bellwether welcomed the appointment.
He seems to have a deep spiritual rooting, a centering, even though the task is daunting and his selection as archbishop was not expected, said Fr. Robert Bullock, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows in Sharon, Mass., and a leader in the controversial Boston Priests Forum. Bullock was among the 57 priests who publicly called for Law to resign last year.
OMalley is a true Capuchin, a man of evangelical fervor, simplicity and deep prayer, said Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan, in an interview with NCR during a recent visit to Rome. (For the full account of the interview, see John L. Allens Word from Rome column on NCRonline.org)
To the degree that those who are eager to denigrate the church find it useful to depict prelates as spoiled princes living off the fat of the land then obviously theres nothing more in your face than the whole Capuchin tradition, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, told NCR.
Today is a day of hope for healing and unity for our troubled archdiocese and for the American Catholic church, said Steve Krueger, executive director of Voice of the Faithful, the organization that has called for greater accountability from church leaders.
One discordant note was sounded by some abuse victims (including those who say OMalleys record in Fall River was less than stellar), though even that aggrieved community appears prepared to give OMalley a chance. Given the short list, Im optimistic about this choice, said Bill Gately, New England co-coordinator for Survivors of those Abused by Priests, SNAP.
Following his news conference, OMalley met with clerical abuse victims. This was not Bernie Law, a big, egotistical guy, trying to con his way through it, abuse victim Thomas Fulchino told The Boston Globe.
Though central casting would have been hard-pressed to match the moment with the man any better, OMalley, say those who know him, is the real thing.
In Washington, D.C., where OMalley attended the Capuchin college in the mid-1960s, the Lakewood, Ohio, native is recalled both for his humility and his activism. Following his 1970 ordination, the polylingual OMalley received a masters degree in religious education and doctorates in Spanish and Portuguese literature from Catholic University, where he also taught.
As director of the Washington archdioceses Spanish Catholic Center from 1973-78, the low-key Father Sean was not afraid to take on powerful interests.
As the capitals Hispanic population ballooned, so did the programs of the Catholic Center: legal advice, English-as-a-second-language and high school equivalency classes, medical and dental clinics, and employment referrals. OMalley organized ill-treated domestic workers -- the women who cleaned the homes of the citys rich and famous.
To show his solidarity with the largely Hispanic inhabitants of the dilapidated Kenesaw Building in the citys Adams Morgan neighborhood, recalled Deacon Alfredo Hidalgo, OMalley moved into the rodent and rat infested apartments. The buildings remaining tenants -- many had abandoned the un-air-conditioned, unheated structure -- faced eviction. OMalley engineered the rehabilitation and tenant purchase of the building.
OMalley launched El Pregonero, the first Spanish-language newspaper in the region. We were beginning to meet the immediate needs of the people -- medical care, dental care and jobs, recalled Ramon Dominguez, who, with his wife Carmen, worked with OMalley. Then we realized that all this was just solving the immediate problem, said Dominguez. The newspaper was a very good tool to keep the people informed and help them grow.
Washington Catholics who were close to the young priest recall his activism, yes, but the word that first comes to mind when they are asked about OMalley is humble.
The most significant thing about him is that he is a very humble person, a person that is dedicated to service to the people, says Dominguez.
This humility and commitment to service comes directly from the Franciscan tradition, says his fellow Capuchin, Fr. Donald Lippert. He has a horizontal approach to people, hes compassionate and approachable and hes able to speak with people in a very unassuming way, said Lippert.
OMalleys commitment to social services and advocacy were evident in both the Virgin Islands, where he was appointed coadjutor to the St. Thomas diocese in 1984 and then bishop in 1985, and Fall River, where he served from 1992-2002. Under his leadership in St. Thomas, the diocese established additional soup kitchens and homeless shelters and launched the first diocesan newspaper.
In Fall River, recalled Congressman Barney Frank, D-Mass., OMalley opposed restrictions on government benefits to legal immigrants and aggressive deportation procedures. OMalley, Frank told NCR in a phone interview, did more than denounce the policies, he put the resources of the diocese behind the effort through establishment of legal clinics and other support services.
But OMalley was not brought to Fall River primarily to advocate for that communitys large immigrant community. Instead, it was his task to reform a diocese racked by allegations of clerical sexual abuse and cover-up. Within six months of assuming office, OMalley agreed to a settlement with nearly 70 victims of former priest James Porter and instituted perhaps the toughest child protection policies of any diocese to that point.
If OMalley was a hero to Fall Rivers large immigrant population and political liberals for his views on immigration and economics, orthodox Catholics and conservatives welcomed his outspokenness on doctrinal and social issues. OMalley views legal abortion as a grave evil.
Writing in The Anchor, Fall Rivers diocesan paper, prior to the 2002 midterm elections, OMalley said: I will not vote for any politician who will promote abortion or the culture of death, no matter how appealing the rest of his or her program might be. They are wolves in sheeps garments, the KKK without the sheets, and sadly enough, they dont even know it.
His reputation as an abuse-scandal fixer solidified, OMalley was tapped by the Vatican last year to head the embattled Palm Beach, Fla., diocese, where his two immediate predecessors acknowledged their personal involvement in sexual abuse and where financial scandals had shaken the confidence of contributors.
Early in his short tenure in Palm Beach, OMalley met with Edward Ricci, a prominent local attorney and supporter of Catholic causes. Ricci had been publicly critical of the dioceses financial management.
He volunteered to me that he was surprised to find that there were no audits in any of the parishes, said Ricci. He said that more than half the parishes have no lay finance council and more than half have no parish council and [he said] Ive got to change all that.
Riccis impressions: The sense I have is that his administrative talents are not his strong suit. The man succeeds by strength of personal character. Its very hard to have a conversation and not have the sense that youre dealing with a very good, holy man.
Thats just what the church needs more of, says Neuhaus. The OMalley appointment is a move away from a dominantly managerial model of the episcopal office, which I think is exactly the right move.
OMalley will be installed as archbishop of Boston July 30.
Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address
National Catholic Reporter, July 18, 2003
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