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Spotlight Report

O'Malley shows deft fund-raising touch

By Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff, 8/3/2003

Like many gala fund-raisers at The Breakers, a luxurious hotel overlooking the ocean in Palm Beach, the one held last December for local Catholic schools saw tuxedo-clad men sipping cocktails while women in long evening dresses and strappy sandals nibbled on exotic canapes.

Voices dropped noticeably when the new bishop padded across the polished marble floor wearing a hooded brown robe and plain sandals, the uniform of a Capuchin Franciscan friar.

Sean P. O'Malley had arrived in Palm Beach just weeks before with a reputation for pious austerity, so the well-heeled Catholics who gathered that night at The Breakers held their collective breath, waiting to see how a prelate with a distaste for materialism would behave on a playground of the rich.

Sam Barbaro, a deacon in the Palm Beach Diocese, watched as the new bishop moved among the black ties and jeweled earlobes of Palm Beach's elite with the ease of a presidential candidate. The guests smiled and soon the volume rose.

''He can schmooze with the best of them,'' Barbaro said approvingly.

He can raise money with the best of them, too, according to those who have watched O'Malley, Boston's new archbishop, at his previous postings. Those who have worked with O'Malley describe him as a cleric who, despite his personal rejection of status symbols and wealth, is at ease pastoring to and socializing with the rich and powerful, adept at pulling at their heartstrings so that they'll pull out their checkbooks.

With Boston still reeling from the clergy sex abuse crisis that led to the resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law, O'Malley, it is widely believed, was chosen to lead the troubled, fourth-largest archdiocese in the United States because he had restored stability to two other dioceses, Palm Beach and Fall River, that were rocked by abuse scandals of their own.

But one of O'Malley's other pressing challenges is to get Boston Catholics to resume giving money to their parishes and the church's various charities. Following the scandal, church fund-raising suffered gravely as disillusioned Catholics stopped going to Mass and slashed or stopped their giving. Proceeds from the Boston archdiocese's main annual fund-raising drive dropped 47 percent from 2001 to 2002. Weekly Mass attendance dropped 14 percent in the same period, hurting parish collections. Bankruptcy remains an option for an archdiocese still facing more than 500 legal claims from men and women who say they were sexually abused by priests.

In his previous postings, O'Malley has demonstrated a talent for tapping donors, big and small, while creating initiatives and special funds to supplement the church's more traditional services. He brought Catholic Charities to the Virgin Islands, improving social services there, revived Catholic education on Cape Cod while extracting donations from rich summer residents, and had ambitious plans to increase the number of Catholic schools in Palm Beach before he was summoned to Boston just nine months into his Florida posting.

O'Malley's ascetic lifestyle, while remote from the world of The Breakers set, has a way of attracting philanthropists and making them feel comfortable giving.

''You know he's not going to spend it on himself, that's for sure,'' said Frank G. A. Veraart, who became O'Malley's chief fund-raiser in the Virgin Islands when O'Malley was appointed bishop of the St. Thomas Diocese in 1985. ''He has a way of separating people from their money, without ever asking for money directly.''

After Hurricane Hugo struck in 1989, O'Malley dispatched Veraart to a Catholic Charities conference with video footage of the suffering in St. Croix, where 90 percent of the homes were damaged. Then O'Malley found one of the few phones in St. Thomas still working and began calling around. Soon, the donations were pouring in.

''He knows how to say, `If you don't help, the job won't get done,' '' Veraart said.

Veraart said that O'Malley professionalized the way the diocese was run, putting alarms in its properties and making sure those properties were properly insured. He launched a Catholic newspaper and got a Catholic show on the local cable TV service. Knowing that a charity has to spend money to make money, he hired someone to write grant proposals.

Even before he was made a bishop, O'Malley demonstrated the Midas touch while working with poor Hispanics in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s. Xavier Suarez, the former mayor of Miami, who as a law student shared an apartment with O'Malley when they both worked at an outreach center for Hispanics in Washington, said O'Malley's lack of interest in money attracts the interest of those with plenty of it. In this regard, Suarez compares O'Malley to Mother Teresa, the Albanian nun who devoted her life to the poor.

''She never asked for money, but she never lacked for it. Sean is the same way,'' said Suarez, who is now a lawyer in Miami. ''His personal lifestyle inspired people to give. And not just Catholics. He got money from other denominations, Jewish donors especially. I remember a Protestant couple who were about to get married and had heard him preach about helping the poor at the Spanish Catholic Center in Washington. They took the $3,000 they were going to spend on their honeymoon and donated it to the center. That's the kind of effect he has on people.

''In Boston, he'll have a lot of people who wanted nothing to do with the church lining up to write checks.''

When he arrived as bishop of Fall River in 1992, there were no Catholic schools on Cape Cod; now there are several. According to Monsignor Thomas J. Harrington, the director of fund-raising for the Fall River Diocese, O'Malley seized on a previously untapped resource: wealthy Boston Catholics who summer on Cape Cod. O'Malley oversaw the creation of a summer soiree, held at a different private golf club each year. One year it was Oyster Harbors, another it was Willowbend. Harrington said O'Malley's initiative brought in an extra $500,000 a year.

O'Malley was sent to Fall River following the scandal of a serial pedophile priest, the Rev. James Porter. Harrington said the diocese's annual appeal ''grew every year he was here.'' He said it was under $3 million, and hurting, when O'Malley arrived; now it's over $3.7 million.

''He could put the touch on people,'' said Harrington. ''He could hobnob with very affluent people on Cape Cod, then he could just as easily be in the south end of New Bedford with Indians from Guatemala.''

O'Malley's success in Fall River helped persuade the pope to make him bishop in Palm Beach, where his two immediate predecessors had been accused of sexual abuse. Edward Laughlin, director of the Office of Stewardship for the Palm Beach Diocese, said O'Malley reversed a 5 percent drop in donations during his short tenure. ''He brought a sense of calm,'' said Laughlin, who was among those who watched nervously to see how O'Malley would react at The Breakers gala.

''It was black-tie. It's safe to say he was the only one in brown,'' Laughlin said. ''He put us all at ease and he was perfectly charming.''

Edward Ricci, a Palm Beach lawyer who raised millions for the diocese but pulled away when the abuse scandal exploded, said O'Malley had ''modest success'' in stopping the revenue slide. He disputes the diocese's claim of a 5 percent drop.

''They're down 10 percent this year, but that's compared to 15 percent before O'Malley came, so he did reverse the slide a bit,'' said Ricci. ''His modesty and his commitment to a Franciscan way of life come through when you meet him, and that has reassured some people.''

Ricci remains estranged from the diocese, but was impressed by O'Malley's willingness to talk to him and to begin instituting financial controls on the diocese's 51 parishes.

''O'Malley told me he wanted audits in every parish, and lay councils with real power. The impression I got was it would take this guy two or three years to implement this. His is not a guy to act rashly. But he never got the time here to really change things,'' said Ricci.

He is expected to have a lot more time in Boston, as it has been the final stop in the ecclesiastical careers of O'Malley's five predecessors as archbishop, four of whom were elevated to cardinal. O'Malley's eventual elevation is a foregone conclusion, according to church historians.

Neal F. Finnegan, the chairman of Catholic Charities in Boston, and the chairman of Citizens Bank, said that while it is too early to say whether O'Malley will reverse the financial slide here, there seems to be a pool of goodwill among those who rebelled against Law.

''You just sense the optimism,'' he said. ''Boston was the lightning rod for the scandal. It would be nice for us to be the lightning rod for restoring the good things the church does.''

Jack Connors Jr., the founder of Boston's biggest advertising firm and one of the biggest Catholic fund-raisers in the archdiocese, speaks for many when he says, ''I'm rooting for Bishop O'Malley.''

But Connors senses a change in the attitudes of those affluent Boston Catholics who have been the archdiocese's biggest patrons. He said they want to do more than write checks; they want to share their secular expertise and have a greater say in the way their church conducts its business.

''For a very long time, people wanted our money but not our help. They didn't want to put us in positions of responsibility. What I'd like to see is something like the Boston College model. It used to be all Jesuits on the board. Now it's 36 lay people and six Jesuits. We raised $440 million for BC recently, and $135 million came from the board. What I want is for the new bishop to reach out to the [lay] leadership for help, not just for their money, but for their wisdom,'' said Connors, who is on BC's board.

There are some indications that O'Malley's style is winning over Boston Catholics who felt alienated from the church. Fred O'Neill, the senior vice president of business development for Suffolk Construction, one of the biggest construction companies in New England, said he stopped donating money in protest over Law's handling of the sexual abuse scandal. But he has recently returned to the fold.

''I'm encouraged by Bishop O'Malley's manner, his humility,'' said O'Neill. ''I strayed. I didn't like what was going on with the church, but people have a religious base and I was ready to come back. This guy [O'Malley] makes me even more comfortable in coming back. And if you go back, you bring your wallet.''

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 8/3/2003.
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