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Popular Bishop May Head Boston Archdiocese

Sean Patrick O'Malley, who ushered two dioceses through sex abuse scandals, is expected to succeed Cardinal Bernard Law.

July 01, 2003|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON -- Bishop Sean Patrick O'Malley, a popular figure who served as head of troubled Roman Catholic dioceses in Massachusetts and Florida, is expected to be appointed archbishop of Boston, an independent Catholic newspaper reported Monday.

The 59-year-old Capuchin Franciscan could be named as early as today, according to a story by the National Catholic Reporter's Vatican correspondent. Father Christopher Coyne, spokesman for the Boston Archdiocese, was on vacation Monday and a call to his office was not returned.

After a year and a half of turbulence brought on by a sexual abuse crisis that rocked the church all the way to the Vatican, many in Boston on Monday welcomed the possibility that O'Malley would succeed Cardinal Bernard Law at the nation's fourth-largest archdiocese.

"He is uniquely qualified to serve in this position," said Roderick MacLeish Jr., a lawyer who has represented hundreds of clerical abuse victims. "What is so shocking is that the Vatican recognized this. Historically, the church has not paid much attention to public opinion."

As bishop of Fall River, Mass., in the early 1990s, O'Malley presided over more than 100 settlements awarded to victims of Father James Porter, who is serving an 18- to 20-year prison sentence. O'Malley established new procedures for dealing with victims and set up protocol to help prevent sexual abuse by clergy. Under O'Malley's direction, the diocese paid for therapy, medication and residential treatment for many of Porter's victims.

MacLeish, who represented 101 Porter victims, said "Bishop Sean" was so accessible that when a delegation of frustrated victims showed up at his residence at 9 one evening, O'Malley roused himself from sleep and met with the group until midnight, when a preliminary settlement was reached.

Ten months ago, the Vatican dispatched O'Malley to take over in Palm Beach, Fla., where two prior bishops had admitted they were guilty of sexual abuse. O'Malley promptly posted a notice on the diocese Web site, offering to meet with abuse victims. He also initiated fingerprinting and background screening for all church personnel working with young people.

"In two months, O'Malley visited more than half of the parishes of the diocese and discovered bad administration," said Edward M. Ricci, a Florida attorney who was an outspoken critic of church leaders in Palm Beach. "In some parishes, there haven't been audits in 20 years."

Ricci said O'Malley displayed "no pretense whatsoever," immediately inviting the erstwhile antagonist to call him "Sean."

But despite O'Malley's reputation for effectiveness and affability, some are not swayed.

"The last thing in the world that a very distraught Catholic population and abuse victims need in Boston is any kind of artificially inflated hopes," said David Clohessy, national chairman of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

Clohessy faulted O'Malley for failing to take a strong position of national leadership as the clerical abuse scandal roiled dioceses across the nation.

"In the last year or so, we have praised about 10 bishops for taking important steps, and he has not been one of them," Clohessy said.

Anne Barrett Doyle, head of a new group in Boston called BishopAccountability, said Monday: "If it is O'Malley, we see some reason for hope, but he is going to have to prove himself in very specific ways. We are in dire straits here in Boston. The morale among survivors, laity and priests is very low."

Law resigned in December and was reassigned to work as a chaplain at a convent in Maryland. Bishop Richard Lennon has served as interim bishop of the Boston Archdiocese, home to 2.1 million Catholics.

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Times researcher Anna M. Virtue in Miami contributed to this report.

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