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Spotlight Report

Church insiders now on outside

Say Lennon does little to reach out

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 5/25/2003


Jack Connors Jr. says he wants to play a role in helping the church again. (Globe Staff Photo / Essdras M. Suarez)
Jack Connors Jr. didn't always feel unwelcome in his own church.

Just after New Year's Day in 2002, as the Globe's Spotlight Team was putting the finishing touches on an explosive story about the Archdiocese of Boston's handling of a sexually abusive priest, the phone rang in Connors's office on the 39th floor of the John Hancock Tower.

It was Cardinal Bernard F. Law, asking Connors for advice.

Best known as the city's most successful adman, Connors is also a devout Catholic, and so he drove out to Law's residence in Brighton to see how he could help.

That encounter -- from Connors's perspective -- was a disaster. Connors says he asked Law how many other cases of abusive priests there were, and the long-time archbishop of Boston told him "there may be one or two."

Connors soon learned that was not true, and his alienation from the hierarchy had begun. He says he told Law he believed the archbishop had either lied to him, or did not know what was happening in his own archdiocese. In the months that followed, he urged Catholics to withhold contributions as a way to force change, and ultimately he called on Law to resign.

But now Connors, believing he and other Catholic laypeople should try to help the church in its hour of need, wants back in.

"I want to enlist people to rebuild our church -- I just don't think that after 2,000 years it should die on our watch," said Connors, the chairman of Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos Inc. "But I watch trends for a living, and I think it's dying."

Four months ago, he wrote offering help to Bishop Richard G. Lennon, who became interim administrator of the archdiocese upon Law's resignation.

The answer so far has been . . . nothing.

Some other prominent local Catholics say they have encountered a similar silence.

So last week, after months of declining to sit with the Globe for an extended discussion of his journey from insider to outsider at the chancery, Connors asked a reporter to join him on a park bench on Castle Island, and as he downed two hot dogs and french fries doused in vinegar, he offered a glimpse into the growing estrangement between the city's Catholic elite and its Catholic Church.

"I don't understand why the archdiocese doesn't reach out to successful people, and there are many of them," he said. "This isn't personal -- I'm not upset because they don't call me -- but to those whom much is given, much is expected. I'm upset that they don't reach out to us -- the haves -- and say `help.' "

Connors, 60, is the best-known example of Boston's changed Catholic population. Once made up largely of working-class immigrants, Boston's Catholics now dominate the political and corporate elite of the region. Well-educated, and in many cases well-heeled, they have fanned out from the city to the suburbs -- Connors himself grew up in Roslindale and now lives in Brookline -- and their influence is felt at every level of civic life.

The Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, spokesman for Lennon, said the bishop is consulting with his Cabinet, which includes numerous laypeople, as well as with the laypeople who made up the archdiocesan pastoral council and the priests who made up the presbyteral council before those panels were formally dissolved, in accordance with canon law, upon Law's resignation.

"But as far as any kind of Kitchen Cabinet or other such group, it's just not there," Coyne said. "That's not his temperament. In my years of working with Bishop Lennon, he has tended to work and consult within the framework of the church and within the framework of the organization, and with the people that are part of that."

In in the eyes of Connors and other powerful local Catholics, the church is still, at its core, too insular.

"They're so focused on their defense, whether it be legal or financial, that there is no offense, no dialogue, no outreach," Connors said. "One and a half years after the Globe's first story, there is still a bunker mentality, and I'm very critical of that because the mission is awaiting. I don't question that Bishop Lennon is a good man, but there are plenty of good men and women. Do something!"

The archdiocese has frequently complained that critics of the church get far too much media attention. For example, in the latest edition of The Pilot, the archdiocesan newspaper, published Friday, an editorial complains that "news coverage tends to greatly emphasize the views of the church's critics."

But Connors, although clearly a critic, has significant Catholic bona fides. He is the chairman of the board of the region's leading Catholic university, Boston College, and is the first layman to hold that post twice. He is also the chairman of a June 5 centennial fund-raiser for Catholic Charities. He has given millions of dollars to Catholic causes, and he says Catholicism is the foundation for his beliefs. He said he has no interest in telling the church what to do about its priesthood or its policies on sexual morality; but that his hope is that laypeople can help the church restore its credibility, so that it can expand its work for the poor.

Many of Boston's Catholic business leaders say they have been frozen out by the new administration of the archdiocese. Some believe they are being punished for speaking critically about Law; others believe Lennon is just overwhelmed by his job.

"I haven't heard from a soul, and I don't expect to," said Paul A. La Camera, the president and general manager of WCVB-TV, who was among those Law sought out for advice in early 2002, but who has since criticized the church in a number of on-air editorials. La Camera, like other prominent Boston Catholics, said he is now focusing his efforts on helping Catholic Charities.

Former lieutenant governor Thomas P. O'Neill III, who has also turned sharply critical of the church, said he, too, has not received any phone calls.

"I just think there's a lot of work to be done at the hierarchical level of this church, but it's the same old-same old," he said.

University of Massachusetts president William M. Bulger, another prominent local Catholic called on by Law, "has not spoken to the bishop, has not heard from the bishop, talked to him, met with him, or any of those things," according to his spokesman, Robert Connolly.

But Connors is the first to speak out. Earlier this month, he gave up the chief executive job at Hill, Holliday, and said he would continue his involvement in public service.

"The leadership of our faith, the people who set the example, are all wrapped up with attorneys and accountants, and the people who have the greatest needs for the corporeal works of mercy are being victimized," he said. "The church is arguably the largest social service network in the state, and it has essentially hung out a sign that says, `Gone Fishin.' "

Connors has not affiliated himself with Voice of the Faithful, the lay activist group formed in the wake of the clergy scandal. But he said he believes the organization "is a force for good," and that the church is wrong to spurn offers of help from its members, among them many weekly communicants, eucharistic ministers, and religious education teachers.

"There is not only no leadership for change, there is no inspiration," he said. "Where are the leaders emerging? At the local hospitals, as the volunteers; at the schools, as the teachers working for half wages; and at the churches, as the eucharistic ministers. They're there, and they're asking to be asked to step up."

Connors's words carry weight, in part, because he is rich and powerful -- one of the handful of people who can truly claim to broker power in Boston -- and he has a lifetime of experience as a fixer of institutional problems. A one-time Campbell's Soup salesman, his business acumen allowed him to become one of the region's most successful advertising executives, despite an inability, by his own admission, to either write well or draw. Not only is he chairman of Hill, Holliday and the BC board, he is also chairman of Partners HealthCare, which is the largest health care network in the state and the parent organization of Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women's hospitals.

Connors said he talks with priests and educators, and doesn't like what he hears.

"There is no communication with pastors," he said. "They might as well be in forts from 200 years ago. There is no leadership, and no action."

He also said the management practices revealed by the church crisis are unacceptable.

"I want them to wake up, to learn how to raise money, to learn how to keep records that aren't in boxes," he said. "It's one thing to have antiquities; it's another to have incompetence in management and communications."

A long-time philanthropist, Connors said he has also decided to go public because he fears that mismanagement of the church, and the insularity of church leaders, will lead to a rash of closings of Catholic schools and parishes and will exacerbate the money crunch for Catholic social service programs already suffering from cuts in state and federal aid.

"It seems to me they've made a decision to play poor: They're not going to sell off any major assets, they're going to wait out the legal issue and hope to take advantage of the charitable immunity laws, and they're not going bankrupt because Rome isn't eager to see the government inside the church's business," Connors said. "I'm afraid people are going to wake up one morning to read about more school closings, more social service cutbacks, and a health care network that has trouble competing. I don't like what I see."

Michael Paulson can be reached by e-mail at mpaulson@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 5/25/2003.
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