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O'Malley will find many wounds to heal
Observers say he must handle crisis of faith, finances

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 and healer.

''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 among parishioners.

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 schmooze.''

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 figure.

''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 aim.

''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 survivors.

''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.

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