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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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O'Malley has had a cordial meeting with leaders of Voice of the Faithful, the lay group formed to spur change in the church in the wake of the scandal. He hasn't fully embraced the group, however, indicating a concern about the "ambiguity" of its change agenda. The archdiocese has responded to requests for more fiscal accountability with published financial reports, says the group's Dr. Post.

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Where Archbishop Sean has enthusiastically spent time is in parish visits. The Rev. Louis Bourgeois of St. Paul's Church in Hamilton, Mass., says he was astonished to find how easy it was to arrange one last December - with a single phone call.

"We've been through a tough time, and the visit meant so much to people; it brought hope and insight into what the church can be," says Father B, as he is known to his parishioners. After his sermon, O'Malley stood at the door and met each parishioner. The church was so packed that people had to park blocks away.

The archbishop's lack of pretense, and willingness to listen, have lifted the spirits of other local priests demoralized by the scandal. He's held regional meetings with them and reformed a diocesan council, giving priests a more active voice, says the Rev. Walter Cuenin of Newton, Mass. But the parish closures have been devastating, as priests lose church homes and are shocked to find that even some financially healthy parishes are part of the downsizing. With more than one-third of parishes operating in the red, numerous churches requiring expensive repairs, and 130 pastors over 70 years of age, O'Malley said he was compelled to act. He set up a process that began with local committees of lay people and clergy making recommendations, which then went up through regional and diocesan committees. Taking care "not to place the burden on the backs of the poor," he distributed closings across the archdiocese. But many parishes are planning appeals, and many people question why it all had to be done at once.

"Even though he gained credibility because of his actions and simple lifestyle, this is one of the toughest things a bishop ever has to do," says the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America, a national Catholic weekly.

One year into his new responsibilities, the "bona fide pastoral bishop" has his hands perpetually full. Friends are concerned both about what's being expected of him and his own well-being. "As a spiritual leader, he's being totally wasted on administrative things," Healey says. They've noticed he has lost weight and has no time for a private life.

"He has an inner compass which gives him a kind of serenity - he knows where he needs to go and just keeps going," says his sister. But "this job is testing everything."

Many Boston-area Catholics say they feel the turnaround has begun, but also that they are reserving judgment on the question of restoring trust in the hierarchy. O'Malley replaced Cardinal Bernard Law, but others involved in the scandal are still in place. And questions remain about why the scandal developed. Boston College involved the broader community in a two-year discussion on that question, but "the church hasn't begun to address that at the deep level," says Dr. Groome.

For his part, Archbishop Sean says every effort at communication is part of the goal of restoring trust. "The archbishop's thought is that if we do what we are supposed to do as a church - the caring, loving, and right thing in every situation - then that in itself will be the best message we can put out," says Father Coyne. "It will take a very long time to reestablish trust, but we are going to do it one person at a time, one act at a time."