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New guard in US Catholic church

The installation of Sean O'Malley as Boston's archbishop could signify a different tone.

By Abraham McLaughlinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 31, 2003



There was plenty of pomp at the installation of Boston's new archbishop in the city's soaring stone cathedral Wednesday - gladiolus and rose bouquets, Knights of Columbus in feather-topped Napoleonic hats, and a proclamation from the pope himself.

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But it was also a toned-down affair, as designed by the central figure, Sean O'Malley, a man who favors peasantlike brown robes and Pizza Hut over power lunches. There were two red-robed cardinals - not the usual 15 or so. Prayers were said in eight languages, including Creole, which Bishop O'Malley speaks. Afterward, instead of a hotel-ballroom feast, there were finger sandwiches and punch served under a tent outside.

O'Malley's arrival signals not just a character shift at the helm of Boston's most vaunted and vilified church, but also a substantial change in the wider leadership of America's Roman Catholic Church. More bishops are set to retire this year - mostly due to age - than at any time in recent memory. With O'Malley as a prototype, replacements tend to cut younger, more open profiles. Yet they're also conservative on theology and church reform, with close ties to the Vatican.

It all raises, observers say, central questions facing Catholics: Will the new leaders help revive credibility within the church? Will they embrace or be a bulwark against reform? Will their orthodoxy clash with calls from pews and wider American society for more openness and accountability? "The profile is that these new bishops are liberal on social justice, conservative on doctrine, and conservative on change," says Richard McBrien, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame.

O'Malley, for instance, once moved into a cockroach-infested Washington, D.C., apartment to prevent eviction of the building's immigrant tenants. He speaks the languages of his parishioners - Portuguese, Creole, and Spanish. And he takes friends, parishioners, even fellow bishops to low-brow restaurants like Roy Rogers and Pizza Hut.

Yet even as he built a national reputation for fixing scandal-plagued dioceses, he came under fire for not releasing names of some abusive priests, and for using the statute of limitations to shield them. He is also a protégé of Boston's former leader, Cardinal Bernard Law, still highly influential at the Vatican.

O'Malley's replacement in Palm Beach, Fla., Bishop Gerald Barbarito, is also fairly young - and known for traipsing around his upstate New York diocese and chatting with struggling farmers.

In Philadelphia, meanwhile, Archbishop-elect Justin Rigali is a close personal friend of Pope John Paul II who spent years working at the Vatican. He will replace Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, one of about 37 bishops likely to retire this year.

Progress in facing a scandal?

The new bishops' impulse toward social justice - and their desire to revive flagging church attendance - may bring acceptance of changes related to priestly sexual abuse of children. O'Malley has already hired a lawyer known for reaching settlements with abuse victims.

Nationally, two probes into the scandals are proceeding. And in many dioceses, new rules bar kids from priests' rooms. The bishop in San Jose, Calif., even installed glass walls in confessionals to prevent abuse. It all adds up to making churches "much safer places for kids," says the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America, a Catholic magazine. But many outsiders see the sex-abuse scandal as rooted in a culture of secrecy and weak accountability.

Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly released a report last week cataloguing the abuse of at least 789 victims over 60 years in Boston's archdiocese. He accused the church of "institutional acceptance" of wayward priests. And, amid a lack of fundamental change, he said it is "far too early to conclude that abuse has stopped" or that it will not recur.

That's where the bishops' orthodoxy and ties to the Pope could cause friction. Ultimately Rome - and the bishops it appoints - view the American scandal as stemming from "a lack of adherence to the laws of the church," says Stephen Pope, a theologian at the Jesuit-run Boston College. Therefore, what's needed is "stricter adherence." That leaves no room, he says, for debating whether "secrecy or lack of accountability was a problem" - or whether, for instance, the celibacy requirement for priests should be eased.

All eyes on O'Malley

That's why many are watching to see if O'Malley will set up serious dialogue with reform groups like Voice of the Faithful and the Boston Priests Forum. He'll clearly be pulled between ministering to a bruised flock and toeing a tough line on broad reform.

O'Malley acknowledged that tension in Wednesday's homily: "As your archbishop, I am your shepherd; as a friar, I am your brother; and I have come to serve you...."

Parishioners, too, play a key role, says Bill Gately, a leader in the sex-abuse victim movement. He urges Catholics not to view O'Malley as a quick-fix savior responsible for their welfare. That attitude is "ironically what got us into this mess in the first place," he says.

What's needed, he continues, is antithetical to Catholic culture: Having laity claim "maturity about their spirituality," and a role in the direction of their church. He and others stress a need for legal change in reporting requirements and statutes of limitations. But even if laity are involved, it won't be easy. Parishioners, with O'Malley and other bishops, must weather the coming financial storm. A broad lawsuit settlement in Boston could be at least $100 million. O'Malley is already under pressure to sell the traditional palatial home of Boston archbishops - once valued at $28 million.

Perhaps one prayer offered for abuse victims during Wednesday's mass - in Vietnamese - applied to the entire church: "May God grant them the grace of renewal."

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