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Perhaps not since 1834, when public opinion against the Catholic Church culminated in the burning of the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, has the Archdiocese of Boston found itself in such a troubled and vulnerable state. The clergy sexual abuse crisis, the divisions among the laity, the demoralization of the clergy, the economic downturn, the staggering number of lawsuits pending in the courts — has the Church in Boston has been shaken to its very core.
Archbishop Seán O’Malley, OFM Cap., will step into this bleak reality when he takes the reins of the archdiocese at his July 30 installation.
From the moment the announcement was made on July 1 that Bishop O’Malley would become the ninth bishop and sixth archbishop of the Archdiocese of Boston, expectations were heaped upon him to set right what has gone horribly astray in this archdiocese for decades.
"I feel privileged to be called to serve the Church in Boston and hope that in some way I might be an instrument of peace and reconciliation in a Church in need of healing," Archbishop O'Malley told reporters July 1 during his first trip to Boston following his appointment as archbishop.
"Reconciliation always demands a firm purpose of amendment," he continued. "As your archbishop, I commit myself to working with you."
Speaking to The Pilot in a separate July 1 interview, Archbishop O’Malley asked for prayer and unity “to help bring about healing in this difficult time, so that as a Church we can reach out to victims of sexual abuse, help raise the spirits of our clergy, and inspire people to continue to be faithful to the message of Christ as members and disciples in the Catholic Church.”
"There are extraordinary challenges that he faces," admitted Ray Flynn, former ambassador to the Vatican and former mayor of Boston.
Perhaps the most formidable task ahead will be to help facilitate the healing of the hundreds of victims of clergy sexual abuse that have come forward since 2002. Beginning with the revelations that defrocked priest John Geoghan abused a multitude of children while serving as a priest in the archdiocese, the Catholic Church in the United States has faced the disturbing reality not only that children have been horribly abused by priests throughout the country, but that many times the hierarchy of the Church did not adequately punish the perpetrators of the offence.
Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly, after investigating the Archdiocese of Boston for a period of 16 months, issued a report July 23 stating that over 250 priests and archdiocesan employees abused roughly 789 children during the past 63 years. Currently, there are over 500 civil lawsuits pending against the archdiocese.
"It is not enough for the Archdiocese of Boston simply to declare a commitment to the protection of children," stated Reilly. "The archdiocese must live that commitment through its policies and demonstrated practices."
Archbishop O’Malley addressed this issue in his July 1 remarks saying, “The entire Church feels the pain of this scandal and longs for some relief for the families and communities that have been so shaken by these sad events, and by the mishandling of these situations on the part of the Church’s officials,” declared Archbishop O’Malley.
"We are all anxious for the financial settlements with those who have suffered from sexual abuse," he continued. "We hope that the achievement of financial settlements will be a factor in a process of healing."
Archbishop O’Malley also voiced his desire to reach out to the victims of clergy abuse. In fact, upon arriving in Boston on July 1 he met with victims “to show that we realize the great dimension of the problems and that we want to be able to begin to reach and to hear from victims themselves their appreciation of their present situation.”
During his July 1 remarks, Archbishop O’Malley also indicated that one of his “highest priorities” is to minister to the priests within the archdiocese. He acknowledged the “toll and embarrassment of the scandal” which has demoralized many priests and seminarians. Many feel their life’s work has been tainted by the actions of a few abusive priests. Morale among the presbyterate has suffered.
Perhaps one result of these tensions has been unprecedented division among the Boston clergy over the past year. Last April, several priests created the Priests’ Forum, claiming that the archdiocese’s presbyteral council — a canonical body of priests and bishops — did not adequately address their concerns. In December 2002, 58 priests signed and made public a letter that called for Cardinal Bernard Law to leave his position as archbishop of Boston.
"I'm hoping I might be able to encourage and challenge the priests to minister to one another," Archbishop O'Malley told The Pilot, “and to realize that in all the demands on their time… that the ministry to the fraternity of priests has to be a priority for all members of the clergy.”
However, the demoralization within the archdiocese in not limited to clergy alone. The archdiocese has seen a 14 percent drop in Mass attendance within this past year. In addition, due to a sizable drop in contributions, the archdiocese was forced to cut their budget not once, but twice in the past two years. Also, lay groups such as Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) have surfaced, often questioning the very structure of the Church.
Addressing “those who have stepped away from the Church,” Archbishop O’Malley exhorted them to “help the Church to be a wounded healer by healing the divisions in our own ranks so that we can be a leaven for good in the society in which we live.”
"I think he will be a great force for bringing a divided Catholic community together," Mary Ann Glendon, professor of law at Harvard Law School and member of the archdiocesan Social Justice Commission told The Pilot. “He’s a listener and he will listen to everyone who has felt disappointed or disenfranchised.”
Msgr. Francis Strahan, interim vicar of the West Region and pastor of St. Bridget Church in Framingham, expressed hope for a return to unity in the archdiocese under Archbishop O’Malley’s leadership. “I suspect that all the divisions that have surfaced in this past year will begin to dissipate. I hope we will all begin to work as a team — a team that has for its slogan 'Sentire cum ecclesia.' (‘Think with the Church’)”
Msgr. Strahan praised Archbishop O’Malley’s ability to “deal head-on” with problems. “He’s a man who listens carefully to everyone and does not procrastinate when it comes to solving problems.”
However, he cautioned that the archbishop cannot heal the wounds of the Church alone. “We must all rally around our bishop in order for the Church to heal. These aberrations must be dealt with, but when people walk away from their parish, they let the predators win,” he said.