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Spotlight Report

Earnestness soothes some church critics

By Thomas Farragher, Globe Staff, 12/19/2002

In December 2002, Bishop Richard G. Lennon replaced Cardinal Law as leader of the Archdiocese of Boston.  
Coverage of Bishop Lennon
He was new and nervous - and it showed.

He was earnest about his urgent mission, but far from fully versed in its details.

Bishop Richard G. Lennon promised yesterday to support victims of clergy abuse, listen to priests, and protect children.

The man called by the pope to help calm the worst crisis in the history of the US Catholic Church spoke wistfully about his days as a parish priest when he baptized babies, forgave sins, and prayed for the dead. It was a simpler life of service he knows will never be his again.

But Lennon - who wore a black cassock, a gold pectoral cross, and showed little of his predecessor's solemnity - said he is embracing with vigor the work of healing the wounds in the archdiocese he has called home for his entire 55 years.

And in his words, laced with the familiar Boston accent he adopted growing up in Arlington, the new apostolic administrator's most important constituencies found solace and hope.

''What a breath of fresh air,'' said Gary Bergeron of Lowell, an alleged victim of the late Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham.

''His priorities are right on target,'' said the Rev. John G. Kiley, pastor of St. Joseph Church in Lincoln.

''As much as any man can be up to the task that he now is confronted with, he's up to it,'' said David Castaldi of Brookline, a trustee of Voice of the Faithful, a group seeking an amplified voice for lay Catholics.

If Lennon sidestepped specifics about how he will handle some of the thorny issues that haunted Cardinal Bernard F. Law in his final days as Boston's archbishop, priests, abuse victims, and lay leaders appeared willing to grant him a grace period.

He answered yesterday's questions, they said, like a man who had been focused on running a seminary, which was Lennon's job until he was given responsibility to lead the archdiocese's 2 million Catholics after Law's resignation last Friday. But, they said, he demonstrated a humility that holds promise for a successful tenure.

The former mathematics major and self-taught canon lawyer said he knew few details about the changes in church structure sought by Voice of the Faithful, the lay group formed in reaction to this year's sexual abuse crisis. He said he would not immediately lift Law's edict that bans new chapters of the group from meeting on church property. And he said he would seek advice on how to handle any future financial contributions from the group, which claims some 25,000 members.

''I earnestly look forward to further discussions with the Voice of the Faithful,'' Lennon said.

Leaders of the Wellesley-based group, who called for Law's resignation two days before Pope John Paul II accepted it, said they, too, are eager to sit down with Lennon.

''He clearly is not ready yet to make a break with any past policies,'' said James E. Post, Voice of the Faithful president. ''Staying with those policies is safe, but it doesn't seem to conform with the larger themes he struck about fostering unity and supporting victims. The continuation of the ban is a divisive act. It is not going to promote unity. It offends faithful Catholics, especially during this Christmas season.''

Castaldi, a former archdiocesan chancellor who serves on Lennon's seminary board of trustees, said that once the lay group has Lennon's attention, change will follow.

''Bishop Lennon knows many Catholics who are in Voice of the Faithful and he knows them to be Catholics who love their church and want to work not only for reconciliation and healing but for the unity of the church,'' he said.

Castaldi said Lennon's deliberate manner yesterday was not unexpected. ''He's a man with a lot of things on his plate right now, and has to come up to speed on many different subjects that he's only had a passing knowledge of,'' said Castaldi.

Indeed, Lennon did not stray from his prepared remarks at the opening of a 30-minute noontime news conference. He nervously twirled his gold episcopal ring, a symbol of his marriage to the church. When reporters asked questions, he studiously wrote them down and paused to think before responding.

Lennon demonstrated greater ease after the news conference, when he mingled with reporters over cookies and chips. He smiled and chatted happily, but off the record. He apologized for mispronouncing the name of Amalia Barreda, a reporter for WCVB-TV, and he blessed Pam Belluck, the obviously pregnant New England bureau chief for The New York Times, making the sign of the cross over her head.

It is that human touch, victims say, that they hope will set Lennon apart from Law.

''We've got a guy from the church who has the courage and the intelligence to say that victims come first,'' said Bergeron, who says he was abused by Birmingham at St. Michael's Church in Lowell in the 1970s. ''I'm going to tell this man the same thing I told Cardinal Law: You've got the chance to change history right now.''

Lennon called a commitment to victims his chief priority and said he would work for a ''fair and equitable'' settlement of all claims against sexually abusive clergymen.

''I also will begin to meet with victim-survivors who wish a meeting with me,'' said Lennon. ''Respectfully listening to them, I hope to learn the depth of their suffering. I will extend to each of them my apology on behalf of the church for the abuse which they have suffered.''

William J. Gately, co-coordinator of the New England chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said Lennon's remarks represented a welcomed humility and graciousness.

''His goals are the same goals we would like to see for the church as well,'' said Gately. ''His concern about settlement is important because since the statute of limitations has expired due to the coverup, civil settlement is the only tangible means available to some survivors to get any acknowledgment that these crimes did, in fact, occur.''

''He wants to consult with priests, and that's terrific,'' said Kiley, the pastor in Lincoln. ''I think he needs to know the pain and the anger that is out in the parishes. Things are not going smoothly.''

Thomas Farragher can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 12/19/2002.
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