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Spotlight Report

New bishop installed in Fall River

Local priest now leader of 350,000 Mass. Catholics

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 7/23/2003

FALL RIVER -- With the next archbishop of Boston watching silently as he spoke, Bishop George W. Coleman yesterday told a packed cathedral gathered for his installation that clergy misconduct has left ''a cloud cast over the church.''

In a ceremony rich with regal symbolism, Coleman was ordained a Catholic bishop and installed as the head of the Fall River diocese, replacing Bishop Sean P. O'Malley, who is to be installed as archbishop of Boston next Wednesday.

The day was a rare moment of celebration for a church wracked by scandal, and hundreds of priests and laypeople filled the flower-bedecked Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption to honor Coleman, a local priest who is now the spiritual leader of 350,000 Catholics in southeastern Massachusetts.

Coleman alluded only briefly to the sexual abuse crisis that has roiled the church nationally, including in Fall River, where a local priest, James R. Porter, in 1993 pleaded guilty to 41 counts of sexual assault after being accused by prosecutors of molesting nearly 100 boys and girls in the 1960s.

Addressing himself to the priests of Fall River, Coleman said, ''We have prayed together, rejoiced in each other's company, and suffered, too, when, through the actions of a few, innocent lives were damaged and a cloud cast over the church.''

However, Coleman said, ''our love for the church has not wavered,'' and ''I now look forward to our continued collaboration as, together in Christ, we build up and strengthen the church in this portion of the Lord's vineyard.''

The pope's top representative in the United States, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo also referred briefly to the crisis, saying ''good and faithful priests are far more numerous than those who unfortunately lost their way.''

O'Malley, whose presence at the installation drew a large contingent of Boston news crews, tried to avoid overshadowing Coleman's day. Pursued by reporters as he exited the cathedral, he paused briefly, smiled, and said only, ''It's a great day for Fall River. See you next week. Pray for me.''

O'Malley is now living in Boston in preparation for his own installation next week. He did not attend an afternoon reception for Coleman at White's of Westport yesterday.

Coleman, 64, is the seventh bishop of Fall River. A native of Somerset and a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross, he studied for the priesthood at St. John's Seminary in Brighton and at North American College in Rome. He has worked in parishes in Centerville, Fall River, New Bedford, and Sandwich. He also held several administrative positions.

Coleman has been serving as administrator of the diocese since last October, when Pope John Paul II tapped O'Malley, who had been the bishop of Fall River, to serve as bishop of Palm Beach. But in December, Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston resigned, and earlier this month the pope decided to transfer O'Malley back to Massachusetts to serve as Law's replacement.

Coleman's installation was a 2 1/2-hour ceremony at which Coleman, who had been a monsignor, was first ordained as a bishop and then installed as the top official of the Fall River diocese. An estimated 800 people were invited to witness the liturgy.

Coleman was escorted into the cathedral by a lengthy procession, led by the costumed members of Catholic fraternal organizations, and more than 30 bishops and archbishops who later placed their hands on Coleman's head as he was ordained.

As part of Coleman's ordination, he was required to publicly pledge obedience to the pope, to ''guard the deposit of faith,'' and ''to carry out the office of high priest without reproach.'' Then, as the assembly sang a series of prayers, Coleman prostrated himself, lying completely flat on the carpeted floor of the cathedral aisle, in a symbol of his submission to the will of God. The solemnity was interrupted only once by the ringing of a cellphone.

Once Coleman had become a bishop, he was installed as the leader of the Fall River diocese, taking his seat in the episcopal throne, called the cathedra. He was greeted with several standing ovations, and after his installation he walked through the main floor of the cathedral with his two predecessors, O'Malley and Archbishop Daniel A. Cronin of Hartford, blessing the priests, nuns, brothers and lay people gathered for the ceremony.

''He's a wonderful person, very spiritual, and it's nice to see a local boy make so good,'' said Margaret Soroka of Somerset.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page B2 of the Boston Globe on 7/23/2003.
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