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Spotlight Report

Florida bishop O'Malley seen choice to lead Boston diocese

Has strong record on abusive priests in 2 assignments

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 7/1/2003

Bishop Sean Patrick O'Malley in 2002. He has been praised for his handling of the Rev. James Porter abuse cases in Fall River. (AFP Photo)

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Pope John Paul II is expected this morning to name Bishop Sean Patrick O'Malley of Palm Beach, Fla., as the new archbishop of Boston, according to two people close to O'Malley.

Although the pope could change his mind, one of the people said O'Malley flew into the Boston area yesterday, apparently in preparation for an announcement today.

O'Malley's appointment was unexpected by many within the church, because the bishop, who is also a Capuchin friar, was appointed just nine months ago to head the Palm Beach Diocese. Residents of Palm Beach reacted with dismay yesterday to the news of O'Malley's likely departure.

But O'Malley clearly met one key Vatican requirement for the Boston appointment: He has a lengthy and generally admired record for cleaning up dioceses sullied by sex abuse scandals. In 1992, he was appointed to head the Fall River Diocese, which was reeling from disclosure of abuse by the Rev. James R. Porter, and last year, O'Malley was appointed to the Palm Beach Diocese after two bishops in five years resigned after being accused of molesting boys.

O'Malley's probable appointment was first reported yesterday by the National Catholic Reporter, an independent Catholic weekly. Church officials in Boston, Washington, and Palm Beach declined to confirm the report. But a relative said the announcement is ''a foregone conclusion,'' and a friend said the bishop would be named to the Boston job today. A Vatican official also told the Associated Press that an announcement for Boston was imminent.

O'Malley would become archbishop-elect until his installation as archbishop, which would probably take place within two months. He would replace Bishop Richard G. Lennon, the archdiocesan administrator, who has been overseeing church affairs here since the resignation last December of Cardinal Bernard F. Law.

O'Malley would take charge of one of the nation's largest and most important dioceses, but one that is reeling from an abuse crisis that has rocked the church here and around the globe. The Archdiocese of Boston reports 2 million adherents -- although only about 300,000 attend Mass on an average Sunday -- and is considered so important that its archbishops are routinely elevated to the position of cardinal.

According to people who know him, O'Malley is an intelligent, spiritual man who speaks many languages. He wears a full beard and the habit of his order: a floor-length brown robe, a long pointed hood (the ''capuchin''), sandals, and a white cord with three knots to remind him of his three vows, poverty, chastity, and obedience. The Capuchins are one of several groups of male Franciscans, and their habit is modeled after the attire of poor people in the days of St. Francis of Assisi.

O'Malley is one of two Capuchin friars serving as bishops in the US -- the other is Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver. As archbishop of Boston, O'Malley would probably be elevated to the College of Cardinals; the only previous Capuchin cardinal was Antonio Maria Barbieri, archbishop of Montevideo, Uruguay, who was elevated in 1958.

O'Malley had generally been discounted by scholars as a candidate because he had been in Palm Beach for such a short time.

Observers had expected the Vatican to choose from among a small pool of highly regarded bishops, including Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien of the Military Services, and Bishop Donald W. Wuerl of Pittsburgh. On June 8, the Globe reported that some church officials privy to internal discussions said they believed that Wuerl was the most likely choice.

O'Malley, who turned 59 on Sunday, was born in Ohio and was raised in Pennsylvania. Educated and ordained by the Capuchin order, he earned a master's degree in religious education and a doctorate in Spanish and Portuguese literature from Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

He worked on outreach to Hispanic Catholics for the Archdiocese of Washington from 1973 to 1978. He served as a bishop in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, from 1984 to 1992, when he was named bishop of Fall River. He was appointed to head the Palm Beach Diocese last September.

Victims and victim advocates praise O'Malley for his handling of the crisis in Fall River, where he readily met with victims of abuse, personally helped settle lawsuits, and imposed a tough policy on accused clerics nearly a decade before the nationwide abuse crisis.

But scholars said O'Malley does not believe that the abuse crisis suggests a need for broader reform on issues of sexuality, power, and authority within the church. O'Malley's order is a conservative offshoot of the Franciscans -- they broke off in the 16th century because of a concern about a watering down of the Franciscan order -- and O'Malley has described himself as ''traditional.''

O'Malley also has a mixed record with the news media, which many specialists consider an important element of communicating with Catholics, the vast majority of whom do not read a diocesan newspaper. According to a reporter at the Palm Beach Post, O'Malley has declined requests for interviews from the secular media in Florida. He held a news conference on the day he arrived and since then has not spoken to the secular press, except for a brief conversation with a Washington-based reporter for the Palm Beach Post in which O'Malley said that he didn't want to talk about the abuse crisis because it was ''so sordid.'' An editor at the Fall River Herald News said O'Malley did grant interviews while in southeastern Massachusetts.

''He's been a very strong voice against abortion, and for the rights of refugees and immigrants,'' said Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor of America magazine, a Jesuit weekly. ''He has instant credibility as someone who understands the sexual abuse crisis, and he could hit the ground running.''

But Reese expressed concern about O'Malley's relationship with the news media. ''That's going to be an important part of what he has to do. When he arrives he's going to have to communicate quickly and clearly to the people of Boston, through the news media, that he's going to deal with this crisis and be a force for healing in the archdiocese,'' Reese said.

The Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame, said Bostonians should not expect dramatic change: ''The biggest difference between him and Cardinal Law is his last name. There will be absolutely no difference in the approach to church issues, theological issues, or pastoral problems.

''He is very conservative, and if Voice of the Faithful or the Boston Priests Forum or any others in the diocese expect him to be any different from Cardinal Law or Bishop Lennon in terms of being open, they'll be very disappointed.''

O'Malley would face an archdiocese suffering from falling Mass attendance and declining financial contributions for the last 18 months, amid revelations that more than 100 Boston-area priests have been accused of sexually abusing minors over the last several decades. The archdiocese is facing legal claims from more than 500 people who say they were harmed by the abusive behavior of priests, and lawyers for victims yesterday resumed legal action against the church after a moratorium expired without a settlement offer from the archdiocese.

Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly is wrapping up an extensive criminal investigation of the archdiocese and has promised a public accounting of his findings, which are certain to reintensify criticism of the church's repeated failure in the past to remove abusive priests from their jobs.

The archdiocese has been closing schools and is expected to have to close several parishes; it has laid off staff and sharply reduced spending as a result of the abuse crisis and the weak economy.

The archdiocese is also experiencing an unprecedented uprising by some laypeople and priests, some of whom have organized for the first time, and many of whom have become increasingly critical of a religious institution to which they once demonstrated deference. Voice of the Faithful, a lay organization formed in Wellesley last year, has spread across the nation as it pushes for ''structural change'' in the church, while more than 200 Boston priests have joined the Boston Priests Forum to advocate for priests.

O'Malley wins effusive praise from Roderick MacLeish Jr., a Boston lawyer who represented many of Porter's victims. MacLeish, who now represents numerous people who say they were abused by Boston-area priests, has been critical of Boston's bishops, but has kind words for O'Malley.

''There'll be no pomp and circumstance, but he's got credibility,'' MacLeish said. ''He was sincere and was very good with victims. He has a very different style. He's very humble.''

MacLeish said that in Fall River, O'Malley would sometimes arrive unannounced at meetings of victims, just to listen, and that he personally intervened in settlement talks to keep them moving.

''He really cares about this issue, and he got it a long time before other bishops and cardinals got it,'' MacLeish said. ''He can be tough, but he has no arrogance to him, and that's going to be very well received.''

O'Malley was, however, criticized by Bristol District Attorney Paul F. Walsh Jr. for declining to name all accused priests. Walsh then released the list of names.

''One case does not make a track record,'' Ann Hagan Webb, New England cocoordinator of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said in a statement. ''We are troubled by his unwillingness to do what Cardinal Keeler of Baltimore and others have done and release the names of known abusers in the priesthood. We have seen no evidence that O'Malley made any particularly courageous or innovative steps to heal victims or prevent future abuse.''

Voice of the Faithful President James E. Post, in an e-mail from Australia, expressed hope. ''I have heard positive things about O'Malley from several sources, including those who have worked with him in Fall River and West Palm Beach,'' Post said. ''His response to survivors reflects the things we most need: openness, listening, and compassion.

''We will welcome him and expect that he will hit the ground running if sent to Boston. There is an enormous amount of work to be done, and not a minute to waste.''

Thomas Farragher of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 7/1/2003.
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