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New leader's life marked by intellect, sense of mission
By Thomas Farragher and Michael Rezendes, Globe Staff, 7/2/2003
He has organized urban housing cooperatives to ensure that poor people could live with dignity. And when a monster storm destroyed much of his island diocese, he monopolized one of the few working telephones to raise millions to help rebuild it.
Boston's new archbishop-elect, who speaks softly in multiple languages, enjoys operas by Verdi, the classic literature of Spanish masters, and a hefty slice of well-made pizza along the avenues of New York.
He once told his family he would be content to serve out his priestly life working with the poor far from the urban centers of the United States.
But Rome has had a different plan for Bishops Sean Patrick O'Malley.
He was named a bishop while still in his late 30s. He may become a cardinal in Boston by his early 60s.
''I guess the Vatican had other ideas for him,'' said his younger sister, Mary E. Alexsovich. ''I thought his legacy would be his work with the poor. But it seems it will be the other poor: the poor victims [of clergy sexual abuse]. He's got a job to do, and he'll do it.''
If O'Malley now finds himself the Vatican's prelate of choice to minister to dioceses particularly afflicted by the pain and tragedy of clergy sexual abuse, those who have followed him since his earliest priestly days say he will be well guided by a remarkable intelligence, understated and agile political skills, and a deftness at obeying the theological dictates of Rome while listening intently to the people in his pews.
''I always had the sense that Sean O'Malley would rise greatly in the church mainly because of his sense of diligence and his sense of integrity,'' said Bruno M. Damiani, a literature professor at the Catholic University of America who was O'Malley's doctoral thesis adviser. ''He is a very approachable human being who is very sensitive to the needs of others.''
The man in the full beard and floor-length brown robe, introduced yesterday as successor to Cardinal Bernard F. Law, was born in Lakewood, Ohio, 59 years ago this week, the middle child and second son of a lawyer who specialized in insurance work. When he was a young boy, his family moved into a two-story brick home in Pittsburgh three doors from St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin Church, where Capuchin friars frequently helped out at weekend Mass.
His family recalls O'Malley as a boy who preferred books to baseball. ''He was more interested in reading about the church, rather than the sports,'' his 86-year-old father, Theodore O'Malley, said this week.
Seemingly without effort, he collected stellar grades and devoured the Encyclopedia Britannica, ''reading it from A to Z,'' his sister recalled.
According to family lore, O'Malley's path to the priesthood was set as a preteen when he accompanied his father to pick up his older brother, Ted, from a weekend retreat at a Capuchin monastery and farm in Butler, Pa.
Young O'Malley and his father spent some time speaking with an older friar there before collecting Ted for the trip back home.
''On the ride home, my father said, `That old monk is the happiest man I've ever met.' So Sean said he decided that day that he wanted to be the happiest man in the world, too,'' Alexsovich said.
O'Malley returned to Butler as a ninth-grader to study at the Capuchin-run St. Fidelis High School along the Allegheny River. He later entered St. Fidelis Seminary and then Capuchin College in Washington.
''I remember when he worked in the kitchen with the sisters, peeling potatoes and chopping celery,'' said the Rev. Paul Kuppe, one of O'Malley's seminary classmates. ''Sean wasn't particularly good at sports, but he would play handball. And he liked theater. He had this deep, deep triple bass voice.''
O'Malley was ordained a priest in the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin on Aug. 29, 1970. With a master's degree in religious education and a doctorate in Spanish and Portuguese literature from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., he put his linguistic dexterity to use as executive director of Centro Catolico Hispano, the Washington Archdiocese's Spanish center, from 1973 to 1978.
He ran a residence for young men considering joining the priesthood. He worked with a tenant association to ensure cooperative housing rights for the poor. He used his fluency in a half-dozen languages to aid Spanish-, Portuguese-, and French-speaking immigrants and helped establish a Catholic newspaper for Latinos.
''He could be as comfortable speaking with the ambassador to Portugal as he was with talking with a simple immigrant form El Salvador,'' said Brother Donald F. Lippert, who was recruited by O'Malley to the Capuchins and now holds his former director's post at the Spanish center in Washington.
After serving in other social ministries in Washington, O'Malley was named coadjutor bishop of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands by Pope John Paul II in 1984. A year later, after the retirement of his predecessor, O'Malley became bishop there and quickly went to work. He founded two Catholic television stations, a diocesan newspaper, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, a program serving pregnant teenagers, and a hospice for the terminally ill.
''He once told me that in all the years he was in the Virgin Islands, he thinks he went to the beach once,'' said Monsignor Daniel Hoye, now pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in Attleboro.
When Hurricane Hugo roared through in 1989, damaging or destroying many island homes, including several diocesan rectories and schools, O'Malley immediately began to help rebuild.
''He just rolled up his sleeves and went to work,'' recalled Krysten Winter-Green, who worked with O'Malley in the Virgin Islands and Fall River. ''Pulling water from wells, changing a car tire, he just did whatever was necessary to help.''
And he wasn't shy about reaching out for help.
''Probably the only phone on St. Thomas that was connected was his, and for one month he just called anyone and everyone and raised money, several million dollars,'' said Monsignor Michael F. Kosak, a longtime Virgin Islands pastor who served as O'Malley's vicar general there. ''Hurricane Hugo blew the bishop's house away completely, and when that happened, he came and lived in the rectory with us and remained there.''
By the time he left his island posting in 1992, O'Malley had developed a reputation as a bishop who eschewed the trappings of his office, choosing to meet his small clerical staff at the local Pizza Hut. He was a soft touch among panhandlers.
His language skills were well known and allowed him to communicate directly with the people he served. But his listening skills, associates say, were equally well honed.
And Rome, they said, was paying attention.
In 1992, amid accusations that a former priest, James Porter, had raped or molested dozens of young boys in Fall River more than two decades before, the Vatican dispatched O'Malley to help bind up the wounds.
''To those who were victimized, the Catholic community wants to respond to your needs in the best way possible,'' he said in June 1992, after his appointment by the pope to head the Fall River Diocese. ''People see the priest as a man committed to holiness, to love, and the service of the community. And when this trust is betrayed, we know that great harm is done.''
Paul A. Finn, the mediator who a decade ago engineered settlements between 100 of Porter's victims and the Fall River diocese, recalled this week that O'Malley forged a personal relationship with the victims that proved to be decisive when the two sides reached an impasse in negotiations.
A committee of the victims, Finn said, decided to pay O'Malley a visit, without any lawyers present. It worked. ''Two days later, the initial 68 cases were settled,'' said Finn, who is now co-mediator in the more than 500 claims against the Boston Archdiocese. ''Bishop O'Malley's personal intervention and personal touch carried the day.''
Taking quite another view is Frank Fitzpatrick, the man who first publicly accused Porter. Though he voiced support for O'Malley when the settlements were reached, in retrospect he was more critical. O'Malley, he said, was good at public relations and at ''putting out fires'' for the church, but abuse victims in Boston should be wary, he said, because ''you have to go beyond a good appearance and soft-spoken words.''
In Boston, church officials have been stymied in making a settlement offer, they say, because the church's insurance carriers have resisted putting up sufficient funds. But in Fall River, the diocese paid the settlements - an estimated $8 million - from its own funds and later recovered a major portion of that settlement from insurers, according to lawyers who were involved in those cases.
During his tenure in Fall River, O'Malley was known as an advocate for the disenfranchised, not only for survivors of clergy sexual abuse and people with HIV and AIDS, but also for lower-income working families attempting to improve conditions in their neighborhoods.
He is credited with reviving Catholic education on Cape Cod, where no parochial schools were in operation when he arrived in 1992, according to the Rev. Edward J. Byington, pastor of St. Thomas More parish in Somerset.
O'Malley established two diocesan schools and a parish school and put in motion plans for a fourth school now under construction, Byington said.
Lew Finfer, director of the Organizing and Leadership Training Center in Boston, said O'Malley played a key role in obtaining Catholic Church funding for an interfaith community organizing group now operating in Fall River and New Bedford, the United Interfaith Action of Southeastern Massachusetts.
Local leaders of the interfaith group also praised O'Malley for encouraging parishioners to work on a variety of local issues, including opposition to casino gambling and support for afterschool programs for children.
''It was a privilege to work with him, specifically on the issue of resisting the expansion of casino gambling in Fall River and New Bedford,'' said the Rev. John E. Mueller, a Methodist minister. ''He really helped change the quality of life for the better for a lot of people in those communities.''
Cantor Richard A. Wolberg of Temple Beth El in Fall River said he also worked closely with O'Malley and came to regard him as a friend.
''As far as I'm concerned, he's been the most effective bishop since I've been part of this Fall River Community,'' added Wolberg, whose tenure at Temple Beth El spans 27 years.
O'Malley took a particular interest, Wolberg said, in forming relationships with the various faith communities in the region. ''The Jewish community was very sad about his leaving,'' he said.
But last September, when the Vatican turned to O'Malley again, he had to leave.
Rome sent him to the Palm Beach Diocese, where two previous bishops had resigned after admitting they had molested boys.
Edward Ricci, a Florida trial lawyer who said he has raised millions for the Catholic Church, said he wrote O'Malley a letter two months after he was appointed bishop of Palm Beach. He asked for a meeting to discuss the wide range of problems in the diocese. O'Malley wrote back immediately, Ricci said, and they met for 90 minutes, discovering they had attended Catholic University at the same time in the 1960s and had even shared a class.
''We had an immediate, tremendous rapport,'' said Ricci, an outspoken critic of the way the diocese responded to the sexual abuse crisis and to its financial difficulties. Ricci said he told O'Malley the problems in Palm Beach were vast and deeply rooted. ''Nobody was pursuing the pedophilia issue,'' Ricci said. ''Nobody was pursuing the financial problems. It was just a mess.''
Ricci said he had been trying, without success, to force the ouster of a priest who had molested women. That changed as soon as O'Malley started work. ''He dismissed him on the spot,'' Ricci said.
The Rev. Thomas Skindeleski, pastor of Our Lady Queen of Apostles in Royal Palm Beach, said O'Malley's first tasks in the diocese were difficult. And not long after being installed, he confided in fellow church leaders about the burdens placed on him.
''He has said the hardest thing he has to do is take a brother priest aside and say: `Father, I'm sorry. You cannot serve as priest anymore.' When he said that, his voice actually broke,'' Skindeleski said.
But O'Malley did not hesitate, reassuring parishioners and church leaders that things would turn around.
''He addressed the two or three cases immediately,'' Skindeleski said. ''We said, `Ah, here comes a man with a purpose.'''
O'Malley visited parishes of the diocese, meeting with church leaders and looking for ways to enhance feedback from clergy and laity. He asked a group of 12 priests to form a council to relay to him what they were hearing from parishioners.
''He called us the 12 Apostles,'' Skindeleski said. ''He would say, `I'm counting on you.'''
It did not take long, Skindeleski said, for members of the diocese to grow fond of O'Malley. Many sensed that he was heading for bigger things, but hoped he would stay. ''We feel hurt but not abandoned,'' Skindeleski said. ''Boston has great needs. But, Lord, does it have to be our guy? We were looking forward to having him down here.''
Mayor Edward M. Lambert Jr. of Fall River said O'Malley's ''strength is that he has the ability to be honest and direct without... being preachy.''
''O'Malley is a people's bishop, and the people of the Boston Archdiocese are going to immediately fall in love with him,'' Lambert said. ''He's a very humble man with a very humble lifestyle. Even in winter, he would be seen walking the streets in his Capuchin Franciscan robe and sandals. ''
In St. Thomas, they're keeping an eye on their former bishop. ''We used to joke and say he may be the first America pope,'' Kosak said by telephone from the Virgin Islands. ''He'll probably be named a cardinal in the next year.... God is good. When you see what he has done, you realize that with Bishop O'Malley anything is possible. He's an anointed man and a shepherd.''
Wayne Washington of the Globe's Washington Bureau contributed to the report from Palm Beach, Fla. Also contributing were Walter V. Robinson and Sacha Pfeiffer of the Globe Staff and Globe correspondent Lori Rotenberk, who reported from Pittsburgh. Thomas Farragher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Michael Rezendes can be reached at email@example.com.
This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 7/2/2003.