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'A good shepherd'
Bishop O'Malley's journey took him from altar boy to church leader in 'vacation spots'
By Peter Franceschina, Sun-Sentinel Staff Writer, 9/8/2002
ALL RIVER, Mass. - Beneath St. Mary's Cathedral, a Gothic church built out of native granite 150 years ago with a spire that soars a majestic 190 feet into the air, lies the Bishops' Crypt, where the four bishops of Fall River are buried.
That is where Bishop Sean Patrick O'Malley was certain he would find his final rest. O'Malley, who bears an old-world sensibility in serving the Catholic faithful, thought his calling would keep him in the Diocese of Fall River.
"This is truly a great diocese with wonderful traditions. I had hoped I would have been allowed to spend the rest of my days here, and be buried in the crypt at St. Mary's Cathedral," he said at a news conference last week, before leavening that somber reflection. "The Holy Father has called me to go to Palm Beach. He knows I only do vacation spots, the Virgin Islands, Cape Cod. The diocese there has been through a lot, and I hope that I can help to bring some healing."
In more than a dozen interviews, people who have worked with the 58-year-old O'Malley over his religious career characterize him as unassuming, self-effacing, passionately dedicated to helping others and strictly orthodox in championing the Catholic Church's teachings.
He's also quick with a quip and just as quick with a smile or a gentle touch for those whose sorrow he feels deeply. Those who are close to him say they can feel the love radiating from him.
"When you speak to him, you can feel the warmth. It's his whole persona. There is something about him that is very trustworthy," said Helena Marques, director of the nonprofit Immigrants Assistance Center in nearby New Bedford. "Those are the characteristics that make people love him."
Exuberant testimonials flow when it comes to the new bishop of the Palm Beach Diocese, a man now twice chosen by the Pope John Paul II to heal dioceses racked by sexual abuse scandals and restore parishioners' faith. O'Malley will take over next month.
Last week, O'Malley -- just back from a whirlwind trip to Palm Beach County where his new assignment was announced -- set out on a bittersweet mission.
He celebrated a Mass at St. Lawrence Martyr Church in New Bedford, where dozens of parishioners greeted him afterward. Some had tears in their eyes. Others kissed his ring or took photographs. Prayers and blessings were offered.
The scene undoubtedly will be repeated around the southeastern coast of Massachusetts in the coming weeks as O'Malley delivers his final homilies to the more than 350,000 Catholics he has served the past 10 years.
O'Malley told reporters he expected tradition to bind him in Palm Beach among the people he loves, just as he thought he would remain in the Virgin Islands when he was first became a bishop in 1984.
"The custom in the church, in theology, is the bishop should be in the same diocese until he dies, and that has always been the practice for many, many centuries," he said. "I thought I would be here the rest of my life."
He said God had other plans. "Now I think I will be in Palm Beach for the rest of my life," he said.
Those who have worked with O'Malley say he is an orthodox Catholic who remains strictly faithful to the church's teachings on such issues as abortion, the death penalty, birth control, priestly celibacy and the ordination of women.
"I think you would find him quite loyal to ... the teachings of the church," said Msgr. Daniel Hoye, a priest who has known O'Malley since his days in Washington, D.C., ministering to the Hispanic, Portuguese and Haitian communities. "He would tend to be open to lots of movements within the church, and today many of those movements are conservative."
O'Malley reflected on his Franciscan orthodoxy recently.
"St. Francis wanted us to be in universal love, to be children of the same god, to make strangers feel welcome, to help to overcome the racism and ethnocentricity and the hatred that divides people, to form one family, to reach out to immigrants and newcomers," he said.
In March, O'Malley told parishioners he was devastated by the sexual abuse scandal engulfing the American church. His traditional views were reflected in some of his comments.
"People are quick to blame the church's problem on celibacy. In fact, the church's problems are a result of celibacy not being embraced and lived. In former times people exercised more restraint in sexual matters. Television, Hollywood, and songwriters respected certain standards. People, by and large, postponed sexual relations until they were married. Fidelity to one's spouse was taken for granted and divorce was something rare, practiced mostly by movie stars," he said.
"Today by contrast, MTV, the Internet, the music industry and Hollywood promote promiscuity even among teens. Cohabitation is the norm, adultery is winked at, divorce is rampant and one-third of children in the United States are born out of wedlock. The sexual revolution has not been good for our country; nor has the church been left unscathed, as the present crises clearly indicates."
Patrick Reilly, president of the conservative Cardinal Newman Society, said O'Malley is a personable and strong leader who is "well known for being very strong in his support for Catholic teachings."
"He's a very orthodox bishop, but not someone who is cold to other concerns of the church," Reilly said. "No matter where he is, there'll be those who oppose his teachings."
The Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Catholic magazine America, said O'Malley has been well known to the Vatican for a long time and is someone who hews closely to the pope's thinking.
"It's like a Supreme Court nominee -- they are not going to appoint anyone who disagrees with the pope on anything of substance," Reese said. "He is clearly a very talented bishop who the Vatican has had its eye on."
At the news conference, O'Malley put it simply: "I am sort of a traditional Catholic."
Growing up in Pittsburgh, O'Malley knew he wanted to become a priest at an early age after he became "quite close" to some of the Franciscan priests in the Capuchin order, said his stepmother, Claire O'Malley of Deerfield Beach, who has known him for 35 years.
"They say people are given vocations," she said. "I really think it was a gift."
The future bishop was an altar boy at St. Gabriel's in Pittsburgh. His father and stepmother have a thick folder full of newspaper clippings chronicling O'Malley's ascent in the Catholic Church.
They also have framed photographs of O'Malley with the pope, as well as photographs of O'Malley with Mother Teresa, who opened a convent in Fall River.
His stepmother first met him when he was a seminarian in his early 20s. "I think he is conservative, but very compassionate and always willing to listen, he's very easy to talk to," she said.
O'Malley is well suited to lead the Diocese of Palm Beach and its diverse Catholic community, said Catholic University of America Professor Bruno Damiani, who oversaw O'Malley's doctoral thesis on a Spanish mystical writer.
"I believe he will do extremely well because of his exquisite way in dealing with a variety of people, a variety of ethnic groups and a variety of societal issues. I always felt he would be an enormous asset to the church," he said.
After graduation, O'Malley stayed in Washington, D.C., and taught at Catholic University from 1969 to 1973, when he began his ministry to the immigrant communities. He rose through the ranks of the Washington Archdiocese until he was sent to the Virgin Islands to head that diocese.
In the Virgin Islands, he built two homeless shelters, created an agency for the handicapped and opening the first Catholic Social Services office in the tiny diocese, recalled Msgr. Michael Kosak.
"He was a good shepherd in the diocese," said Kosak, adding his bishop continued to live a simple personal existence. "No extras. He never had any, never looked for any."
In the summer of 1992, O'Malley was sent to Fall River to deal with an issue convulsing the diocese -- dozens of victims of pedophile priest James Porter were complaining church officials did nothing to stop him when told about his predatory behavior in the 1960s.
Moving swiftly, O'Malley enacted a sweeping policy to ensure something similar couldn't happen again. Among his reforms he established a review panel of lay people and church officials to investigate such cases, and he decreed that any priest determined to be a pedophile wouldn't hold a ministry.
In most church circles, O'Malley is hailed as visionary in his handling of sexual abuse allegations.
"That probably stands as one of his greatest legacies, because not only in retrospect did he perform a great service for Fall River, but now it is obvious he set an example for other bishops to follow," said Fall River Mayor Ed Lambert.
O'Malley also will be remembered in the Diocese of Fall River for the work he did with ethnic communities.
"Fall River probably best represents the American experience. People from all over the world have come here, and the demographics are always changing," said Lambert. "One thing Bishop Sean has always been good at is reaching out to diverse communities and other religions."
Richard Wolberg, a cantor with Temple Beth El in Fall River, recalled that O'Malley made great strides in bringing the Jewish and Catholic faiths together. O'Malley initiated an interfaith service to remember Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass -- the night of Nov. 9, 1938, when Jews were methodically attacked in the German Reich.
"He is extremely sensitive to all people and everybody's plight, and he wanted to acknowledge the pain and suffering the Jewish people went through. We never had that before," Wolberg said. "He is the first bishop who actually set foot into a synagogue during a service. He is the first bishop who had extended his hand to the Jewish people as he did."
When asked how he would work to restore parishioners' faith in Palm Beach County, O'Malley was frank that he faces a challenge.
"I don't have all the answers at this time, I wish I did. I will go there and try and be a good bishop to them, and listen to them, get their suggestions, get to know the diocese, certainly make sure very strong policies are in place for the protection of children," he said. "It certainly is a challenge. I hope that people will pray for me and that I will be up to the task."
Staff Writers Nancy L. Othon and Kevin Krause contributed to this report.
Copyright 2002 Sun-Sentinel Company