Associated Press, July 30, 2003
By DENISE LAVOIE, The Associated Press
With his reputation for healing dioceses wounded by clergy sex abuse, the expectations for Bishop Sean O’Malley are enormous as he takes over as leader of the Archdiocese of Boston.
As final preparations were being made for O’Malley’s installation as Boston’s new archbishop, some Catholics saw O’Malley as a new beginning for the church. But others questioned whether O’Malley, a traditionalist who supports the conservative teachings of the church, will be able to make the changes needed to repair the damage here.
O’Malley was to be installed today as the sixth archbishop of Boston, the fourth-largest diocese in the nation.
In keeping with O’Malley’s simplistic life as a member of the Capuchin Franciscan order, the ceremony was planned to be more low-key than the installation ceremonies held for his predecessors.
It also was toned down to reflect the circumstances of O’Malley’s arrival in Boston, where more than 500 lawsuits are pending from people who claim they were sexually abused by priests over the past six decades.
The archdiocese invited about 2,500 people to attend the ceremony, including 900 priests, state political leaders, and victims of clergy sexual abuse.
Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned as archbishop of Boston in December after being widely criticized for his handling of the sex abuse crisis, declined the invitation.
Some abuse victims who were invited planned to either stay away or protest outside the cathedral. They said they are not ready to embrace O’Malley yet, despite his successful efforts to restore confidence after clergy sex abuse scandals in the 1990s in the neighboring diocese of Fall River and more recently in Palm Beach, Fla.
“Trusting before the fact is what got us into this mess,” said Ann Hagan Webb, who said she was sexually abused by a priest as a child. “I’m reserving my endorsement of his leadership until he proves himself one way or the other.”
O’Malley, who wears sandals and the plain brown robe of his order, is known as a humble and soft-spoken man who seems genuinely surprised to find himself in such a position of power and responsibility.
Former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, said he believes O’Malley has the temperament and determination to help bring the archdiocese out of its crisis. But he said it won’t be an easy task.
“His job is to bring closure and healing to the victims of abuse, and to unite the faithful, and he’ll be under a great deal of pressure,” Flynn said. “Special interests will be coming at him in a number of different directions. They have their agendas, and their agendas often conflict with the teachings of the Catholic church.”
O’Malley had been tapped by the pope in 1992 to clean up the mess left in the Fall River diocese by serial pedophile priest James Porter. Then, in October 2002, O’Malley was sent to Palm Beach, Fla., after the resignations of two consecutive bishops who confessed to molesting children.
In Fall River, O’Malley was praised for showing compassion toward victims and for instituting reforms that included mandated criminal background checks and abuse prevention training.
But some victims said O’Malley’s record on clergy sex abuse is not unblemished. They cite a dispute he had last year with Bristol County District Attorney Paul Walsh, who criticized O’Malley for allegedly dragging his feet on giving him the names of 20 priests accused in old abuse cases.
Susan Gallagher, a member of the Boston-based Coalition of Catholics and Survivors, said she believes much of the praise that has been heaped on
O’Malley is because of his humble demeanor and austere appearance.
“Sandals do not an effective abuse policy make,” she said. “What we clearly need is concrete change – not a change of image, a change of reality.”
Yet, other victims say they are willing to give O’Malley the benefit of the doubt. Gary Bergeron, who says both he and his younger brother were sexually abused in the 1970s by the late Rev. Joseph Birmingham, said he plans to attend O’Malley’s installation with his parents.
“Bishop O’Malley is the first church official who has extended an invitation,” Bergeron said. “He extended an olive branch and I plan on accepting it.”