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New Boston archbishop O'Malley vows to bring healing to scandal-plagued church
By Martin Finucane, Associated Press, 7/1/2003
BOSTON -- Bishop Sean Patrick O'Malley, the brown-robed Franciscan friar named Tuesday as Boston's next archbishop, faces an enormous challenge in trying to heal an archdiocese that has been wracked by the clergy sex abuse crisis.
Parishioners are disillusioned, many of them staying away or refusing to donate money. Its priests are disenchanted, feeling abandoned on the front lines as they struggle to minister to their flocks. Scores of alleged victims of clergy sex abuse and their lawyers question whether the church truly wants to solve the crisis.
And the archdiocese has remained in a holding pattern in the wake of Cardinal Bernard Law's resignation in December.
O'Malley wasted no time in getting to the very heart of the crisis. Within hours of his appointment being announced, he held a news conference -- where he apologized and pledged to ensure the safety of children within the church -- then met privately with some victims.
"I have said it many times and I'm going to say it again to the victims today that as much as I can represent the church as bishop, I do ask for forgiveness for these horrendous sins and crimes that have been committed," O'Malley said at the chancery news conference.
"The whole church feels ashamed and pained and I do ask for their forgiveness again and again," he said.
O'Malley, 59, gained national attention for cracking down on sex abuse in his two previous assignments -- in Fall River and then in Palm Beach, Fla. -- and immediately vowed to try to settle the approximately 500 lawsuits pending against the Boston archdiocese.
Even if there's no legal obligation to settle, he said, there remains a moral obligation.
"We must step up to the plate. People's lives are more important than money," he said.
Still, even as he was speaking to reporters in remarks aired live on local television, the archdiocese's lawyers sent notices to lawyers for one alleged victim, seeking to question them about conversations they've had with their client.
The legal maneuvering angered the lawyers, who said it sent the wrong signal as O'Malley was seeking to be conciliatory.
"It's hardball tactics taken to the extreme. ... The rhetoric has always been on one level and the actions have been on another. What O'Malley needs to do is make the actions match the rhetoric," said attorney Robert Sherman.
The Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America, a New York-based Jesuit weekly, said O'Malley had a tough assignment.
"He'll need to be a miracle worker to do this without alienating somebody," he said.
Some priests have grown so discontented that they formed the Boston Priests Forum, meeting regularly to discuss their concerns -- and eventually becoming so disillusioned with Law that some asked for his resignation.
They seemed hopeful that O'Malley would be more open to their suggestions and more comforting.
"I think it's terrific. I think we're very fortunate and I'm sure that the healing process and the rebuilding of trust will be hastened and that primary attention will be given to the survivor victims," said the Rev. Robert Bullock, president of the group, which now numbers more than 200 priests.
Lay Catholics also were optimistic that O'Malley would prove more successful than his predecessor in resolving the crisis that spread to dioceses across the country.
"We're very encouraged by the selection. He seems like he's a person you can talk to. In my opinion, that's the thing we're probably most desperate for," said Luise Dittrich, spokeswoman for the Voice of the Faithful, a lay Catholic group. "Now we have a leader we can have hope in. That was desperately needed in the archdiocese."
Still, others remained cautious.
Paul Baier of Survivors First, a Boston-based victim support group, challenged O'Malley to be a "true national leader in dealing with this crisis."
He added, "We are not hopeful. This problem is the system and the system is much bigger than any individual bishop."
The protesters who were routinely outside the chancery during the height of the crisis returned, standing at the gates as O'Malley was inside. The dozen demonstrators were skeptical O'Malley could bring an end to the crisis.
One church observer called O'Malley the church's "Mr. Fix-It." He'd been sent to the Fall River Diocese to clean up a crisis in the early 1990s when the Rev. James Porter was accused of molesting children. Porter ultimately pleaded guilty to molesting 28 children and was sentenced to 18 to 20 years in prison.
Besides setting up new mechanisms to prevent and investigate sex abuse, the diocese paid for treatment and medication for Porter's victims.
In Palm Beach, where O'Malley was named bishop last October, two prior bishops had admitted to sexual abuse. O'Malley immediately apologized to victims and took steps to crack down on abuse.
But O'Malley and others acknowledged that the problems within the Boston archdiocese are much more severe, much broader and much deeper.
"No one person can magically undo the horrific pain so many in this archdiocese feel," said Ann Hagan Webb, New England coordinator for the lay victims group, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "He did lead the Fall River diocese in the aftermath of serial predator priest James Porter. But one case does not make a track record."