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Spotlight Report

  Joan Vennochi  

Friar's garb signals change, but is it enough?


IF NOTHING ELSE, the Vatican is learning the value of good public relations from the past year of turmoil in the American Catholic Church. Its rolling out of a new archbishop of Boston shows a deft political touch lacking in its previous response to the clergy sexual abuse scandal and other church-related matters.

Now the hard part begins: Will a critical mass of local Catholics follow Bishop Sean Patrick O'Malley and his sandals back to Sunday Mass? And once back, will they put their money behind their church?

From his modest Franciscan garb to his kindly St. Nicholas-like visage, O'Malley looks ready to play the part of humble healer of what is essentially a civil war-torn diocese. He sounds ready to do it, too: ''People's lives are more important than money,'' he said on the day his appointment to Boston became official.

After uttering those simple but wondrous words, O'Malley took steps that show an impressive eagerness to do what it takes to settle more than 500 lawsuits filed against the church by alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse. According to press acounts, the plaintiffs and their lawyers are now optimistic about prospects for a major settlement.

For some Catholics, a fair settlement for plaintiffs will close the book on this sorry criminal saga. They will return to Mass and start giving money. They know the church needs it. In 2002, the church raised $8.6 million, down from $16 million in 2001. Bishop Richard G. Lennon, the interim head of the Boston Archdiocese since the resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law, has already closed one parish in Salem and four schools in Boston.

For other Catholics, the decision to return will not be as simple. The scandal of the past year gave a new generation of Catholics opportunity and very good reason to question church teachings and authority. From specific license to question the years of pathetically flawed response to priests preying on young people came broad new license to question all the rules the men of the Catholic Church set up in the name of God.

It would be naive to paint this as something extraordinary or revolutionary. Over the centuries, such questioning yielded bloody wars and new religious orders all over the world. In this 21st century in America, the lay Catholic group Voice of the Faithful recently drafted a ''blueprint for change'' that calls for ''a groundswell of lay participation'' in the Boston Archdiocese by the year 2005. Except to Rome, that is hardly cause for alarm.

My personal feeling (expressed with no connection to Voice of the Faithful) is that the Catholic Church has no intention of changing its ways in any deeply fundamental manner, in Boston or anywhere else. It is addressing the sexual abuse scandal mainly out of necessity, as a way to prime the pump and get the money flowing once again. In doing so, the church will count on a strange reality that has kept it going for centuries: the truly and totally discontented leave. But many others who are born Catholic cannot imagine being anything else, even when they disagree with basic tenets of church teaching. Over the past 40 or so years, people disagreed, mostly quietly, but still continued a close association with a neighborhood parish, regularly attended Sunday Mass, and raised their children as Catholics.

The last year of scandal provided psychological license to cut the cord minus the old-fashioned Catholic guilt. Skipping Sunday Mass suddenly seemed a lot less offensive to God and man than the actions of some priests and their enablers. Now, continuing to stay away does not imply a lack of belief in God or religion. It just signals highly justified doubts about an institution that claims to have a lock on both. Once a person takes the first step and walks away, the church's institutional intolerance for questions and the zealots it nurtures in the name of religious purity also make it easier to stay away and contemplate other venues for worship.

Better public relations out of the Vatican doesn't change any of that. Neither do symbols like sandals and brown robes, as comforting as they may be.

Will Bishop O'Malley really change the way the church does its business? Let's wait and see.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is

This story ran on page A11 of the Boston Globe on 7/10/2003.
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