A shepherd's trials
When Sean Patrick O'Malley was summoned last July to confront a widening abuse scandal in the Catholic Church's Boston Archdiocese, the genial Franciscan put on the archbishop's mantle and walked into an inferno.
He joined the religious order as a teenager because he wanted to become a missionary. Sent off to Easter Island during theological training, he worked happily among the Rapa Nui people and indulged his passion for learning languages. It seemed a fulfilling start to a life already committed, in the model of St. Francis of Assisi, to living simply and building a spiritual community.Skip to next paragraph
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But it wasn't to be. Sean Patrick O'Malley never got his dream posting in Papua New Guinea, and today he holds the biggest job in the troubled US Roman Catholic Church - at perhaps the most critical moment in its history.
By all accounts, he's still the humble friar with a thirst for prayer and a clear sense of mission, but after several jobs bearing increased responsibility, he's been thrust into a demanding role played out under a merciless spotlight.
"Being Archbishop of Boston," he recently wrote in the diocesan newspaper, The Pilot, "is like living in a fishbowl made out of magnifying glass."
When the pope named O'Malley archbishop a year ago, Boston's Catholic community was dispirited and alienated by the sexual-abuse scandal that had dragged on for 1-1/2 years without sign of progress. Addressing that crisis, which had undermined the moral authority of the American church, was O'Malley's urgent priority.
But he was soon embroiled, too, in the clamor around the Massachusetts court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. And then, another layer: The shifting fortunes of the Boston Archdiocese made it imperative, he decided, to move quickly with the largest "reconfiguration" of parishes yet seen in the US, a plan that will close some 60 churches by the end of 2004.
"Archbishop O'Malley has taken the people of Boston on an emotional roller coaster," says James Post, president of Voice of the Faithful, a Boston-based national lay organization.
One year after his arrival, O'Malley has shown a decisiveness that those who know him call very much in character. But while aspects of his performance have been hailed by both laity and clergy, that decisiveness has also stirred strong emotions in its wake - particularly with regard to the ongoing parish closings.
Heading the fourth-largest archdiocese in the country may not be a job O'Malley would have chosen, but some people insist he is the right man to do it.
"If anyone in the American hierarchy today can do what needs to be done, it is he," says Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the US Conference on Catholic Bishops. "He's a bona fide pastoral bishop who readily and gladly reaches out to people, which is important in the healing and reconciling process."
Indeed, O'Malley had already acted to right the ship in two other dioceses roiled by clergy abuse cases - Fall River, Mass., and Palm Beach, Fla. - and his arrival in Boston in his trademark brown robe and sandals to sit down immediately with victims of abuse brought an almost audible sigh of relief.
Hopes rose even higher when he switched lawyers and showed up at a late-night negotiating session to break the logjam and reach an $85 million settlement with more than 500 abuse victims.
O'Malley then moved out of the opulent archbishop's residence into a city neighborhood near the cathedral, and sold the mansion and surrounding property for $107 million to pay for the settlement.
"We needed a leader who could bring people together and resolve things as quickly as possible," says Philip Moran, a prominent lawyer in Salem, Mass. "He bites the bullet and does what he thinks needs to be done. That's the sign of a true leader."