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Reviling a revered cardinal

By Daniel Golden, Globe Staff, 7/24/1992

Militant and triumphant: William Henry O'Connell and the Catholic Church in Boston, 1859-1944
By James M. O'Toole
University of Notre Dame Press, 324 pp., illustrated, $28.95
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What may have been the juiciest scandal in the history of the Catholic Church in Boston has somehow remained hidden from the public for seven decades. Now James O'Toole unveils this story in "Militant and Triumphant," a scathing biography of Boston's first cardinal, William Henry O'Connell.

O'Toole, an assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, uses harsh language for any scholarly work, particularly for a study of a previously revered prelate. But the well- documented revelations that O'Connell condoned illicit marriages and other violations of church rules by two priests in his inner circle appear to justify O'Toole's charges of "cowardice" and "moral obtuseness."

O'Connell, Boston's archbishop from 1907 to 1944, is less remembered today than two Boston mayors of his era, John (Honey Fitz) Fitzgerald and James Michael Curley (with whom the cardinal often feuded). But, like them, O'Connell personified the Irish-Catholic challenge to Yankee hegemony. "The Puritan has passed," he boasted. "The Catholic remains."

Born in 1859, the youngest of 11 children of Irish immigrants in Lowell, O'Connell benefited from a position as rector of an American seminary in Rome to cultivate Vatican connections and rise in the hierarchy. Like Boston's current archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law, O'Connell was a conservative who believed that the church in America should adhere to Rome's dictates. O'Connell's attempts to rein in the independence of Jesuit-run Boston College presaged Law's similar efforts.

Unlike previous archbishops of Boston, O'Connell invited celebrity. He lived in what O'Toole describes as an "intentionally grand and relentlessly public manner," and traveled abroad so often that he became known as "Gangplank Bill." He hobnobbed with presidents and threw his weight around in state politics. The press could count on him to denounce the latest cultural abomination, be it psychoanalysis, the theory of relativity or crooners.

Yet nobody was more modern than O'Connell when it came to PR. When he wanted to publish a collection of his letters as a young man, he simply made them up. He depicted himself as an efficient manager, yet kept accounts carelessly and diverted church funds for personal use.

And, despite his image as a forceful leader, O'Connell couldn't even control his nephew, Rev. James O'Connell, whom the cardinal had named chancellor of the archdiocese. Violating his priestly vows, James O'Connell in 1913 married a woman in New York City and embezzled church funds to support his double life. James O'Connell's best friend, Rev. David Toomey, editor of the Pilot, the archdiocesan newspaper, married around the same time as well.

According to O'Toole, O'Connell knew of these activities and even lied to the pope to protect his nephew. The author suggests that James O'Connell may have blackmailed his uncle with threats to expose the cardinal's financial irregularities and alleged homosexuality.

O'Connell's friends in the press protected him, but the gossip heated up the ecclesiastical phone wires. Led by Bishop Louis Walsh of Portland, all but one of New England's other bishops demanded O'Connell's ouster. O'Connell stayed, and Walsh died disappointed in 1924. (In one of the occasional bits of unfair speculation that cast doubt on the author's objectivity, O'Toole writes that O'Connell was "no doubt smiling to himself" at his accuser's death.)

The cardinal saved his job, but lost all influence in church politics. By the end of O'Toole's book, its title -- a reference to O'Connell's conception of Catholicism -- comes to seem ironic. No longer "militant and triumphant," O'Connell in his later years became cautious and defeated.

This story ran on page A10 of the Boston Globe on 1/10/2003.
Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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