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Spotlight Report

O'Malley pick for charity chief is hailed

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 9/27/2003


Rev. J. Bryan Hehir
Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley, demonstrating the high priority he places on services to the poor, yesterday named a priest who is a national leader in Catholic social services and the former dean of Harvard Divinity School to oversee Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston.

O'Malley's choice of the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir as president of the largest private social services agency in the state places an outspoken and highly regarded intellectual in the inner circle of the church's hard-pressed local administration. Hehir, who will now be a member of O'Malley's cabinet, has spoken widely about the sexual abuse crisis in the church, and has been critical of the hierarchy, declaring just last week at Boston College that ''we've got to treat adults as adults in the church.''

He succeeds current Catholic Charities president Joseph Doolin, who had announced plans to retire.

Hehir, 63, who currently serves as president and chief executive of Catholic Charities USA in Alexandria, Va., will assume his new post in January. The Boston agency provides social services to hundreds of thousands of poor people, most of whom are not Catholic and many of whom are immigrants.

''There is rising human need, and there are declining resources to meet those needs, rooted in the fact that we're coming out of a recession, state budgets all across the country have been devastated, and the church across the country has been impacted by the [abuse] crisis,'' Hehir said in a telephone interview. ''We're working on housing, nutrition, helping people with employment searches, but in Boston we're doing that under an overarching reality, which is the need for a pastoral rebuilding of trust within the church, and a public rebuilding of trust within society as a whole.''

O'Malley, who as a Franciscan Capuchin friar has expressed a pastoral preference for the poor, declared privately shortly after his installation July 30 that he wanted a priest to take over the agency upon the retirement of Doolin, the social worker who has headed the agency since 1989. O'Malley consulted with the agency's board of trustees, but made the choice himself.

''Archbishop O'Malley, as the bishop of Boston, has a great concern for the poor and needy of Boston, and his own charisma as a Franciscan gives him a deeper love for the poor and underprivileged,'' said O'Malley's spokesman, the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne. ''The appointment of Father Hehir to this position is going to strengthen the church's mission to the neediest among us.''

Many church observers were surprised that such a prominent figure would move from the national organization to a local one. But it was hailed in Boston.

''In the world that Bryan Hehir lives in, he's a giant,'' said Neal F. Finnegan, chairman of the Catholic Charities board of trustees. ''This certainly makes a statement about the importance of Catholic Charities in the array of things this archbishop is trying to strengthen.''

Peter Meade, the board's vice chairman, called the appointment ''an incredible signal to the priests of the diocese that the archbishop wants to hear from everyone, and a signal to us of how important he believes Catholic Charities is to Boston.''

Voice of the Faithful, a lay organization that has been contributing money to Catholic Charities because the Archdiocese of Boston has refused to accept the group's contributions, also welcomed the move.

''This is . . . an extraordinary coup for the Archdiocese of Boston,'' said James E. Post, the president of the Voice of the Faithful. ''Father Hehir is a scholar, a passionate advocate for social justice, and a gifted leader who well understands the impact of this crisis on Catholics and Catholic institutions.''

Hehir will face numerous challenges at Catholic Charities, a 100-year-old agency that served 200,000 people last year and had a budget of approximately $40 million, most of which came from the state government and private fund-raising. Doolin is credited with building up the board of the organization, which includes numerous prominent business leaders, and with spearheading an ongoing but painful reorganization in which the agency expects to consolidate about 75 facilities around Greater Boston to fewer than 10.

Hehir is not a well-known public figure, but in the worlds of academia and in church circles, he is highly regarded for his intellect and communication skills. He is one of the leading Catholic experts on the theory of just war.

Educated at St. John's Seminary in Boston and ordained in 1966, Hehir worked from 1973 to 1992 on the staff of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, where he was regarded as the architect of the bishops' influential 1982 pastoral letter on nuclear weapons, which called for reducing the nation's nuclear arsenal. In 1984 he won a so-called genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation, and he has won more than 25 honorary degrees from various universities.

While at the bishops' conference, Hehir taught at Georgetown, and then he moved back to Boston, where from 1993 to 2001 he was a professor of the practice of religion and society at Harvard Divinity School. From 1998 to 2001, he served as the first Catholic priest to lead Harvard Divinity School, but he refused to take the title of dean or to live in the dean's mansion to demonstrate that his first duty was to the church.

Cardinal Bernard F. Law, then archbishop of Boston, made it clear he was unhappy with Hehir being stationed at Harvard, a historically Unitarian school with a reputation for progressive theology. In 2001 Hehir left to head the national Catholic Charities agency, which does not provide direct services but rather serves as an umbrella organization advocating in Washington for the interests of Catholic Charities agencies around the country.

Over the course of the church crisis, Hehir has been much in demand as a public speaker, and has addressed the crisis at multiple venues, including Regis College and Boston College. He has also spoken on the subject to the Boston Priests Forum.

At BC last week, he declared that the church is still in crisis, saying, ''We've had the nuclear explosion, the blast is over, but the radiation is still in the air,'' and warning that ''if we lose the people who have become disillusioned by this, the next two or three generations of their families are gone, too. . . . That will be devastating.''

Hehir said yesterday that even as the archbishop's secretary for social services, he expects to continue to speak his mind.

''You need to know when you're working in a given framework, that you're not a freelancer. But I've always found people give you the scope to speak as honestly as you can to problems, and that you should try and be as direct and clear as you can,'' he said.

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.


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