What a new archbishop faces

Sean Patrick O'Malley, expected to be appointed head of Boston diocese, has dealt with church scandals.

It isn't the name parishioners in Boston expected to hear. But the Vatican is expected Tuesday to announce that the toughest job in the American Catholic Church - archbishop of Boston - will go to a bishop who is probably the most experienced in cleaning up after clergy sexual-abuse crises.

Bishop Sean Patrick O'Malley has spent the past nine months in Palm Beach, Fla., facing the most embarrassing situation in the US church - two bishops in a row resigning because of their own direct involvement in sexual abuse.

He was given that assignment after effectively tackling the biggest abuse scandal of the early 1990s in Fall River, Mass., in the aftermath of the case of James Porter, a priest convicted of abusing dozens of children.

While Bishop O'Malley was on the short list of possible candidates, Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh had been touted as the more likely choice, perhaps partly because O'Malley has been in Palm Beach only a few months. Now, however, John Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter indicates that the choice will be O'Malley.

Praise from critics

His efforts in Palm Beach have won praise from a few of the church's strongest critics. "There are a number of good signs in his performance that make us feel he's perhaps the best possible choice among the candidates," says Terry McKiernan, codirector of Bishopaccountability.org, a Boston-based lay project to monitor US bishops' performance.

Last month at the bishops' semiannual meeting in St. Louis, Survivorsfirst.org, a victim-advocacy group, named O'Malley as one of only five US bishops who have "lived up to their commitments."

In both of his difficult assignments, the bishop is credited with outreach to victims and setting in place sound policies. He is also known for his pastoral skills and commitment to healing, and in Palm Beach, he issued the kind of apology that some say goes beyond what others have done.

"He's brought people together and done an extraordinarily good job of healing and reconciliation in two very troubled dioceses," says Russell Shaw, a former longtime lay staff member of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"Along with intense loyalty to the church and its teachings, he is a bona fide pastoral bishop who readily reaches out - which will be important in working with victims and alienated Catholic lay people who have suffered a great deal," adds Mr. Shaw.

Indeed, Boston Catholics are eager for the change. When Cardinal Bernard Law resigned last December after a year of growing outrage and despair in the archdiocese, hopes were raised with the interim appointment of Bishop Richard Lennon. But for many Catholics here, those hopes have been dashed.

Bishop Lennon has failed to reach a settlement with some 500 victims of abuse, despite a lengthy moratorium on lawsuits to allow for mediation. And he has continued the ban on the Voice of the Faithful, the Boston-based organization seeking greater lay involvement in the church, which has grown to 180 chapters nationwide. He also rejected thousands of dollars raised by VOTF for social needs, though the local Catholic Charities accepted it despite Lennon's order.

"Assuming this news is correct, we're very encouraged," says Luise Cahill Dittrich, VOTF spokeswoman. "This archdiocese is in dire shape, very fractured and hurt and confused - and this is an opportunity for healing." But, she cautions, "We need to see a four-sided table - clergy, laity, hierarchy, and survivors talking and working together."

The tasks ahead

Some say O'Malley's task would be harder because of the failure of things to move forward over the past six months. Despite his good record, says Mr. McKiernan, "It's going to be crucial to do aggressive outreach, to rescind the ban on organizations of Catholics, and to step away from the hostile approach toward the Boston Priests' Forum."

And others say it's too soon to be cheering. SNAP, the largest support group for victims of abuse, says it's "premature" to talk of O'Malley as a "reformer." He has not, for example, been willing to release publicly the names of known offenders. Most important, they say, no bishop can alone "clean up" sexual abuse in a diocese.

Yet given the troubled state of the Boston archdiocese, most are heartened by the prospect of starting afresh to attempt healing and reconciliation.

Shaw says unequivocally he's "the man for the job - if there is anybody in the American hierarchy today who can do what needs to be done, it is he."

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