The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


Lennon given mixed grades on work, prospects

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 5/12/2003

Bishop Richard G. Lennon, the interim administrator of the Archdiocese of Boston, is viewed favorably by a plurality of Boston-area Catholics, but many say that after Lennon's first five months on the job they still don't know enough about him to make an assessment, according to a new Boston Globe poll.

Lennon has deliberately tried to keep a low profile while overseeing the church, with some of his advisers arguing that the less attention he gets from the news media, the better. The poll, taken over several days last week, found that 41 percent of local Catholics said they don't know whether Lennon would be a good choice as the permanent successor to Cardinal Bernard F. Law.

But a plurality of Boston-area Catholics appears to have a modestly positive view of Lennon's oversight of the archdiocese, which is plagued by scandal, plunging revenues, and falling church attendance.

Those who do have a sense of him seem to like him -- 37 percent said he would be a good choice for archbishop of Boston, compared with 20 percent who say he would not.

''He came across as an honorable man,'' said Susan H. Bonner, a 60-year-old volunteer coordinator from Nahant who participated in the poll.

She said she views Lennon favorably based on the television coverage of his appointment as interim administrator. ''I have no reason to be unfavorable towards him.''

But others polled were less inclined to give the new bishop the benefit of the doubt.

''I really don't think too much of any of them nowadays, because of everything that's gone on -- most of them knew what was happening and didn't do anything to stop it,'' said Maryann Salvati, a 33-year-old home health aide from Peabody. ''They're trying to rectify it only because it came out. But if things like this were going on in the church, how can you believe or trust anybody?''

Although Lennon's publicly articulated priorities are dominated by earthly concerns, such as balancing the church budget and settling legal cases, the bishop got his highest marks in the area of spiritual leadership.

Fifty percent of Boston-area Catholics polled said they think Lennon is doing an excellent or good job providing spiritual leadership, compared with 30 percent who said they think he is doing only a fair or poor job.

Lennon's lone major initiative to date was in the spiritual arena: He spearheaded a Lenten program of healing and reconciliation that drew a few hundred people to each of a series of prayer services between Ash Wednesday and Holy Thursday.

Lennon got lower marks for his management of church finances, perhaps reflecting the church's dire financial straits and the unpopular steps he has taken to address the situation. Lennon has already closed one parish and four parochial schools in response to a 47 percent drop in the church's main annual fund-raising appeal from 2001 to 2002, and he has had to lay off chancery employees, trim subsidies to low-income churches, borrow millions of dollars from the Knights of Columbus, and launch a new fund-raising drive in an effort to stave off deeper cuts.

Thirty-nine percent of those polled rated Lennon's management of the church's finances as excellent or good, compared with 29 percent who said his performance in that area has been only fair or poor.

Lennon got his weakest marks for addressing the problem of clergy sex abuse, the only area in which more people rated him negatively than positively, but even here there is no clear consensus on the bishop's performance. Of those polled, 43 percent rated Lennon's performance addressing the problem of sexual abuse as only fair or poor, while 37 percent rated it good or excellent.

Lennon has not yet accomplished any of his goals in that area. He promised to publish a new archdiocesan policy on sexual abuse by March 1 but has not done so; he promised to expedite the disposition of 27 pending cases against allegedly abusive priests but has resolved only two; he promised to reach out to victims but has alienated some with hardball legal tactics; and he promised to try to settle more than 500 scandal-related legal claims but now faces complaints by plaintiffs' lawyers that the church team is not negotiating in good faith.

Overall, 43 percent of those polled said they view Lennon favorably, while 23 percent viewed him unfavorably, and 16 percent said they don't know. Lennon is liked best by the minority of Boston-area Catholics who thought Law should not have resigned -- 72 percent of them view Lennon favorably -- and he also garners narrow majority support from Catholics who go to Mass at least once a week and from Catholics over age 65.

Lennon, 56, was a little-known auxiliary bishop who was serving as rector of St. John's Seminary when he was asked by Pope John Paul II to take the job he now holds, formally called apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Boston. He is serving indefinitely, until the pope chooses a permanent replacement for Law.

The Boston Globe poll was conducted by telephone from May 4 through May 6 by KRC/Communications Research, and involved 400 self-identified Catholics living in the archdiocese. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A6 of the Boston Globe on 5/12/2003.
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