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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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He also showed that "he's not afraid to put his toe in turbulent waters," says Krysten Winter-Green, a psychologist who ran homeless shelters for the diocese in the Virgin Islands. O'Malley asked her to come to Fall River and set up an HIV/AIDS ministry. "That was a very brave step then," says Dr. Winter-Green.

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When the Boston scandal broke in 2002, abuse victims began coming forward from across the country, and the pope sent O'Malley to Palm Beach to take over after two bishops had to resign for their own sexual misconduct. A mere 10 months later, after getting repairs under way, he was tapped for the Boston job.

Calling the challenge "overwhelming," he appealed to Boston Catholics to work together "to repair the church."

Further than ever, perhaps, from his ideal job, the archbishop faces immense tasks in simultaneously seeking to reconcile a deeply hurting Catholic community while putting the archdiocese's fiscal house in order in the face of declining attendance and contributions and a serious clergy shortage. But he was handed yet another challenge when the state Supreme Court last fall called it unconstitutional to disallow same-sex marriage, shifting the national spotlight again to Boston.

O'Malley waded into the emotional waters, working with other church leaders to take a stand on marriage and press the legislature to support a state constitutional amendment. The church's lobbying arm waged a vigorous campaign in parishes and at the State House, and O'Malley spoke at a rally on Boston Common.

"The pressure from the church has been higher than anything previously experienced, even on abortion or assisted suicide," says Maurice Cunningham, associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. "The archbishop spurred an unusually strong effort to get priests to speak from the pulpit, and legislators heard not only from constituents but [in some cases] from their own parish priests."

Many Catholics cheered his effort. "It took a lot of courage to speak at the rally; it wasn't politically popular going against the trend," says Flynn, the former mayor and former US ambassador to the Vatican. Others were distressed, however, that he had shared the stage with stridently antigay groups, and worried that the effort was divisive. Almost 70 percent of the Bay State's legislators are Catholic, but many did not back the church's stance against same-sex marriage and civil unions. They passed a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage but allow civil unions with the same benefits. It must be approved by public referendum in 2006 before it can go into effect.

Today, the need persists to bring about healing in the aftermath of the abuse scandal. Programs to protect children are in place in parishes and schools, but more victims are coming forward, and lawyers say it's not clear how the archdiocese will respond. O'Malley has been meeting once or twice a week with victims, but some who have been most vocal during the crisis say they haven't been able to see him.

"We developed a list of ideas, and hoped to meet with him and say, 'We know what survivors want and can help you do the things that will help us heal,' " says Ann Hagan Webb, coordinator of a survivors' group. When they wrote directly to him seeking a meeting, she says, they were told they should work through the pastoral-outreach office.

"He hasn't met with some people because there's a feeling there are other agendas and it will be turned into a media event," says the Rev. Christopher Coyne, archdiocese spokesman. (The archbishop also has recently declined direct interviews with the media.)