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.
(Page 3 of 5)
Born in Ohio and schooled in Pennsylvania, O'Malley went to Washington after seminary for a master's degree in religious education and a PhD in Spanish and Portuguese literature at Catholic University. (So strong are his linguistic skills that the pope once took him to Cuba as his interpreter.)Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
O'Malley's hopes for a foreign assignment were dashed when he was asked to head the Spanish Catholic Center in Washington, providing social services to the burgeoning Latin American immigrant community. Yet he found that made him happy, says his sister, Mary Alexsovich. "My father always said [Sean] would have made a wonderful diplomat in the State Department, but he's much happier in his sandals and robe flying down the street answering calls from immigrants who need a hand."
Concerned about the abuse faced by many Latin American women who worked as domestics, "Padre Sean" started an underground railroad for battered and exploited women, which was featured on ABC's "20/20."
His work with the homeless attracted the attention of Raymond Flynn, then mayor of Boston and head of the US Conference of Mayors' committee on hunger and homelessness. "He's not someone who looks for the limelight; he just goes about the job," says Mr. Flynn.
"A Puerto Rican friend used to joke that when Father Sean was first named to the [Washington] job, the Hispanics said, 'Why do we need an Irishman?' " Ms. Conway says. "But by the time he was sent to another post, they all had little statues of St. Francis in their homes because they looked like Father Sean."
O'Malley's skills were widely noted, and in 1984 he was made a bishop and sent to the US Virgin Islands. Colleagues say fidelity to his faith and to people, and an immense sense of responsibility for the spiritual welfare of his flock mark his work as a bishop. On St. Thomas, he encouraged women to start a center dealing with domestic violence. Hurricane Hugo hit the islands in 1989, causing widespread devastation. Warned of the storm's approach to St. Croix, O'Malley headed there so a local disabled priest would not be on his own.
"The island was practically wiped out - 85 percent of roofs gone, not a leaf left on a tree," says Conway, who had gone to St. Thomas to help start a diocesan newspaper. O'Malley personally drove to every parish to check on people. He took on the task of raising funds for rebuilding, and even cooked a macaroni-and-tuna casserole for a reporter who flew in to do a story.
Yet the energetic friar does have his quirks. His sister teases him about his un-Franciscan lack of fondness for cats. Nuns who worked in the St. Thomas chancery owned cats that were free to roam, she says. One day, a poor man came in off the street and was pouring out his heart to the bishop, when a cat jumped onto the man's lap. The bishop pulled a squirt gun out of his desk and sent the cat scurrying. "I told him St. Francis would never do that," Alexsovich recalls with a laugh. "He said, 'I know, they didn't have squirt guns then.' "
When he's not being a shepherd, O'Malley likes to gather friends for a movie and popcorn, and he loves sharing music, particularly classical and opera. "He took me to my first opera, 'Madame Butterfly,' when I was in sixth grade," his sister says. He used to play piano and harpsichord, but no longer has time. Reading is his great solace, friends say. He's an avid scrounger in bookstores.
When the major sexual-abuse case of the Rev. James Porter broke in 1992 in Fall River, Mass., O'Malley was moved to the heavily Portuguese-speaking diocese. There he won plaudits - even from plaintiffs' lawyers - for reaching out to victims, gaining a quick settlement, and instituting a diocesan policy to prevent future abuse. He visited victims in their homes and listened to their stories, a pattern he has continued.