For a year-and-a-half, daily media revelations of cases of alleged sexual abuse of minors by priests had chipped away at the foundation of archdiocese. Virtual collapse was more than a remote possibility. The former archbishop had resigned in response to the scandal; the prospect of Chapter 11 bankruptcy still loomed.
The morale of the faithful was at an all time low, since no imminent resolution to the crisis was apparent. Division was rampant, both among priests and among the lay faithful.
Negotiations between attorneys to settle abuse claims were seen as a necessary step to bring resolution to the victims. But those negotiations became bogged down. They were paralyzed by the complexity of the issues and the conflicting interests of the various parties involved, particularly the reluctance of insurance companies to accept liability in many of the cases.
Meanwhile, the attorney general’s office published a comprehensive report on their investigation of the archdiocese’s handling of allegations of abuse. The report said that there were no grounds to file criminal charges against Cardinal Law or the archdiocese, but painted a scathing picture of the Church’s handling of priests accused of abusing minors.
Then, in the midst of this turmoil, a Capuchin friar arrived, dressed in the simple brown robes of his order. Heeding once again God’s call to St. Francis to “Rebuild my Church,” he put his nose to the grindstone.
By moving out of the archbishop’s residence he sent a message that there was going to be a change of course.
His pivotal decision to replace his team of lawyers dealing with abuse claims and to abandon the archdiocese’s failed negotiation strategy provoked a drastic change in the settlement process. Placing the interest of victims as his paramount concern — beyond that of recouping the money from insurance companies — proved crucial to the swift and fair resolution of hundreds of abuse claims.
And he didn’t stop there.
In his first year as Archbishop of Boston, Archbishop O’Malley has challenged his priests, calling them to unity and obedience.
"Today," he told them at Dec. 16, 2003 meeting, "I call upon you to allow ... obedience to meld us together as one presbyterate, putting aside ideologies and petty differences and saying 'yes' to the Lord."
He has challenged his flock, asking them not to throw out their faith like “the baby with the bath water,” but asking them instead to become “wounded healers.”
With a firm voice in defense of marriage, he has challenged Massachusetts’ political establishment, unaccustomed to hearing from the sleeping Catholic majority which the archbishop helped mobilize in defense of that critical social institution.
He has challenged all of us with the reconfiguration process, reminding us that our faith goes far beyond our attachment to a structure.
Many of his decisions have been controversial. As he said in his interview printed in this week’s Pilot, “I quickly learned when I came to Boston that here, all decisions are dilemmas.”
To pretend that everyone agrees with all his decisions would be fantasy. Still, there is an overall sense that the archbishop is caring for his people.
One thing is clear: He came to Boston with a mission, and with a vision, and he is working toward its fulfillment.
That vision includes fostering a spiritual renewal of his flock, following the call of the Holy Father to the new evangelization. As children of God, we are called to embrace God’s universal call to holiness. His plan for a eucharistic year as part of the archdiocese’s bicentennial celebrations in 2008 clearly shows his conception of the way towards renewal.
Yet, some feel he has his shortcomings. Many would cite his unqualified reference to feminism in his Chrism Mass homily and his decision to comply with Church rubrics by washing the feet of 12 men on Holy Thursday.
While we understand that emotions may still be raw on those issues, if these are the worst perceptions the faithful have of the actions of Archbishop O’Malley in his first year as archbishop, the Church here is certainly in a much better place.
What a difference a year can make.