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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.

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Boston Catholics are now watching to see how their leader will go about the longer-term process of restoring trust. Archbishop Sean, as he prefers to be called, clearly was sent to Boston to set things in order pastorally and financially. The question for many is whether he will go beyond that and grapple with the deeper issues many see troubling the church, issues which may have contributed to the crisis. The US bishops themselves seem divided over what is required, discussing it behind closed doors during their semiannual meeting this month in Denver.

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One key to the man can be found in the Latin motto he chose for his coat of arms as archbishop, which reads in English: "Do whatever he tells you." Those are the words of Jesus' mother to the servants at the wedding in Cana, before the changing of water into wine. They are a guiding principle of his life, O'Malley once told a Franciscan magazine. When a superior asks him to do something, he added, he interprets it as God's will.

Such an unwavering stance leads some people to the conclusion that O'Malley is unlikely to apply his renowned problem-solving skills to effecting deep reform.

"The man is not doing stuff to ingratiate himself with Rome so he'll get a promotion - nobody suspects that," says Thomas Groome, director of Boston College's Institute for Pastoral Ministry. "[But] he's significantly to the right of center ... and I don't think he will lead a great renewal or a program of reform in the Boston church."

Others are more critical. "The appointment of Archbishop O'Malley has been successful for the institution, but has done little to resolve the problems of victims and their families," says Bill Gately, coordinator of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests). "The settlement is a positive step ... but the problem is [church leaders] don't see it for what it is - a systemic problem in the governing body of the institution."

Still, many who know this obedient son of the church well say he's exceptionally capable: a highly educated man who speaks six languages and knows how to get things done, and a holy man who finds his joy in prayer and in helping people.

Jack Healey, founder of Amnesty International, was a fellow seminarian in the Franciscan Capuchin order in the 1960s, and says he admired O'Malley from Day 1.

"The rest of us were like ballplayers hoping to become priests; he was like a little priest growing into a big one," Mr. Healey says. While classmates were studying extra hours, "he also reached into the community and started a painting company for ex-cons."

Healey also recalls that "Shags," the name bestowed on O'Malley when he grew his beard, took the several thousand dollars of an inheritance from his grandmother and "literally gave that money out on the street."

It was during the 1960s that the Second Vatican Council initiated reforms in Catholicism - in areas such as the roles of clergy and laity, liturgy, and church governance - that spurred deep division within the church; O'Malley has remained a conservative while Healey became very progressive. Yet they've stayed lifelong friends.

"I'd like him to be more progressive, but he's the real thing - a holy man on a holy journey. He disarms you with his humility," Healey says.

While O'Malley is conservative on doctrine and issues of morality, most would call him liberal on social justice - a man very much in the mold of Pope John Paul II. He hasn't missed an antiabortion march in Washington, even if it meant plowing through snow in his sandals and socks, friends say. He has also championed the rights of immigrants and the marginalized throughout his ministry. The weekend after his installation as bishop in Palm Beach, "he was not celebrating Mass in the cathedral, but in the fields with migrant workers," says longtime friend Mary Conway, a Catholic journalist.