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Spotlight Report

  A Boston Globe Editorial  

The Archbishop's actions

8/3/2003

THE RECENT installation of Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley was rich in ceremony and symbols of power, including the grand entrance and acceptance of the crozier, or staff, that represents a bishop's willingness to lead his flock. But O'Malley also made clear during his profound yet accessible 35-minute homily that he is here to prevent the extremes of power that led to the widespread clergy sexual abuse of minors. O'Malley declared an end to ''business as usual,'' welcoming the presence of abuse victims at the installation Mass and telling them that ''the healing of our church is inexorably bound up to your own healing; you are the wounds on the body of Christ.''

The image was forceful. Still, a leader's intentions are best revealed in deeds, not words or ceremonies. And O'Malley is already taking action.

On Thursday, just one day after his installation, O'Malley chose a new lead counsel, Thomas H. Hannigan Jr., to handle roughly 500 sexual abuse lawsuits pending against the Archdiocese of Boston. It was an excellent choice. The archdiocese's inability to reach settlements with alleged victims is not based solely on disagreements over dollar figures. Mutual respect has been missing from the negotiations, a condition rooted in part in the victims' beliefs that archdiocese attorneys dismissed their concerns for reform.

Hannigan showed respect for victims when he negotiated scores of sexual abuse settlements for the Fall River Diocese in the early 1990s. He saved the hardball tactics for his dealings with the diocese's insurance companies. Roderick MacLeish Jr., who represents about 260 people suing the Archdiocese of Boston, sat across the table from Hannigan in Fall River and again in the recent cases of two priests accused of molesting 11 students at Boston College High School in the 1970s and 1980s. He praises Hannigan's patience and willingness to listen to victims.

That view is reinforced in a January 2003 letter by BC High's president, William Kemeza, who cited both Hannigan and MacLeish ''for creating a dispute resolution format that allowed for rigor but did not devolve into acrimony.'' The resolution of the Boston cases requires a similarly respectful atmosphere.

O'Malley still must confront an old guard that resists accountability and reform. The 16-member Archdiocese Finance Council is too heavily influenced by the win-lose mentality that perceives sexual abuse victims as embarrassing impediments to the church. O'Malley may need to seek resignations from that body before any settlement can be reached.

The thick walls of secrecy that surrounded the archdiocese have been weakened through outside revelations about clergy sexual abuse. But the crisis won't be over until O'Malley breaks through.

This story ran on page E10 of the Boston Globe on 8/3/2003.
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