O'Malley will find many wounds to heal
Observers say he must handle crisis of faith,
By Sacha Pfeiffer, Globe Staff, 7/2/2003
He faces a mission so daunting that one local pastor, asked
to describe the magnitude of the difficulties awaiting the
new leader of the Boston Archdiocese, resorted to the language
of natural disasters, the Richter scale.
An alienated, disaffected laity. A demoralized, divided clergy.
A budget crisis so acute that bankruptcy remains an option.
More than 520 legal claims filed by men and women who say
they were sexually abused by Boston priests. An erosion of
public trust in the moral authority of the church.
To succeed here, Archbishop-elect Sean Patrick O'Malley will
need to draw on many skills, as an administrator, accountant,
mediator, listener. But all those talents come second, in
the view of many priests, theologians, and lay people familiar
with the archdiocese's troubles, to the need for a peacemaker
''The absolute number-one priority is the healer; it's unquestionable,''
said Chester Gillis, chairman of the theology department at
Georgetown University. ''If the person is not someone who
can reach out and be a healer, I think his ministry simply
won't be effective.''
Indeed, O'Malley enters a landscape so scarred by the events
of the past 18 months that several observers questioned why
anyone would want the job and predicted that the work will
exact a great personal cost.
''The problems are very deep and very, very raw-edged, still,''
said the Rev. Robert J. Bowers, pastor of St. Catherine of
Siena Parish in Charlestown. It was Bowers who suggested,
only partially in jest, that the troubles facing O'Malley
be measured on the scale used to gauge earthquakes.
The new leader of Boston's Catholics, Bowers said, ''has
to take a look at the entire situation and see reality as
it is: a church that's fractured, a church that is still very,
very angry, really disappointed and has lost confidence and
trust in its leadership, a church that's suffering and sad.''
The mood of the archdiocese is more hopeful than when Cardinal
Bernard F. Law resigned as archbishop in December, a decision
made after his credibility had been so undermined that 58
priests called for him to step down. Discontent still lingers
among many priests. O'Malley must appeal for obedience, although
many clergymen - including some whose careers are on hold
while church officials investigate decades-old allegations
against them - say they feel betrayed by the hierarchy.
Meanwhile, the archdiocese's financial situation is so tenuous
that several parish schools have closed this year, and more
closures are likely, which is sure to create fresh wounds
The church's fiscal woes follow drops in attendance and charitable
giving. Weekly Mass attendance dropped 14 percent between
October 2001 and October 2002, and the archdiocese's main
annual fund-raising drive suffered a 47 percent decline from
2001 to 2002.
But foremost among O'Malley's challenges, according to many
observers of the crisis in Boston, is to win back the trust
of an angry, wary laity.
''There's a very serious disconnect between the hierarchy
and the people, and I think reconnecting is essential,'' said
the Rev. Bernard P. McLaughlin, pastor of St. Gerard Majella
Church in Canton. ''They don't think the same thoughts....
They don't approach things in the same way. ''
To bridge that gap, O'Malley should launch a public outreach
campaign ''the Dukakis way,'' McLaughlin said, referring to
former governor Michael S. Dukakis. ''Get on the trolleys
and the buses and walk to places. Get visibility. If you're
in a limousine, that doesn't register well. You've got to
McLaughlin believes that O'Malley could make an important
early public statement by adopting a lifestyle markedly different
than that of his predecessor, beginning with a move from the
opulent chancery grounds in Brighton to more modest housing
in downtown Boston. There, McLaughlin said, O'Malley could
become a regular fixture on city streets, rather than a distant
''The credibility issue is primary,'' McLaughlin said. ''Unless
you have credibility, people aren't going to give, and people
aren't going to care.''
O'Malley also will need to balance the demands of divergent
constituencies, from young, reform-minded groups like Voice
of the Faithful, which is now banned from meeting in many
Boston parishes, to older, more conservative groups that believe
that the church must reaffirm traditional teachings.
Complicating matters further, the scandal has energized the
church's liberal wing, which is more openly challenging the
church's insistence that its priests be male and celibate
and has angered conservatives who say that much of the abuse
occurred because too many priests are homosexual.
Thomas Groome, a theologian at Boston College, said O'Malley
would be wise to immediately announce that he will meet with
the leadership of Voice of the Faithful and the Boston Priests
Forum, a group of Boston-area clergy advocating for change,
''and thank these people for the effort they're making to
move this church toward renewal, not just tolerate them or
allow them, but actually thank them for the wonderful service
they have been rendering.''
Groome said O'Malley also should strive for greater lay involvement
in church governance and oversight.
''He should put in place the lay boards and lay participation
that are so badly needed,'' Groome said. ''He should come
in and encourage all voices - left, right, and center - and
meet with them and listen to them. He should encourage the
lay leadership that will emerge, because I think only then
will the church of Boston recover.''
Also looming for O'Malley is a showdown with plaintiffs'
lawyers demanding that the church settle the hundreds of pending
civil claims or, failing that, be prepared to defend the cases
at trial. But while settling the abuse claims should be a
priority, many church watchers said, reaching out with compassion
and respect to abuse victims should be the church's primary
''The healing in the archdiocese has to begin with an appropriate
response to the survivors of clergy sexual abuse,'' said James
E. Post, president of Voice of the Faithful. ''They have to
settle the legal claims. But they also have to develop a continuous
program of outreach to the survivors, a spiritual and healing
commitment that continues for the lifetimes of all of the
''It would be wrong for the church to think that the problem
is settled once the legal claims are satisfied,'' Post said.
The legal and financial challenges facing the archdiocese
will require the new archbishop to be a capable administrator,
one who can delegate responsibilities to competent advisers,
parish councils, and diocesan finance councils.
''If you had a wonderful manager who came in and knew budgets
and could readjust allocations, that's all very nice, but
you could hire a [a chief financial officer] for that,'' Gillis
said. ''They don't need a banker. They don't need a lawyer.
They need a pastor.''
Indeed, public sentiment seems unanimous that achieving the
spiritual mending that is required will be far more difficult
than balancing budgets and negotiating with plaintiffs' lawyers.
''His main challenge is to reevangelize people about the
Christian faith,'' said the Rev. Joseph M. Hennessey, pastor
of St. Joseph Parish in Kingston.
''Instead of figuring out how to divide the increasingly
small pie up into increasingly small pieces, he has to increase
the pie, which would be by lighting a fire under people again
about the Christian faith, the Catholic faith, and inspiring
people. The more he does that, the more the solution to concrete
problems will follow.''
Walter V. Robinson of the Globe Staff contributed to this
story. Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at [email protected]
This story ran on page A22 of the Boston Globe on 7/2/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.