Boston prelate known for humility, crisis management

WASHINGTON - In 1989, Bishop Sean P. O'Malley of St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, flew to the neighboring island of St. Croix to stay with a priest unable to evacuate before a pending storm.

The storm - Hurricane Hugo - whipped through the Caribbean and devastated St. Croix. When it was over, the bishop was out on the streets, picking up debris, talking to people and changing a tire.

He also got to work helping restore the island, "as soon as he could find a working phone" to make appeals for financial help, recalled Mary Conway, former communications director for the St. Thomas Diocese and former editor of the Catholic Islander diocesan newspaper.

She said the public schools were closed for two months after the September hurricane, but Catholic schools reopened within two weeks, and Bishop O'Malley urged all of the island's children to attend the schools, free of charge, stressing their need for routine and assurance that "things were all right."

That kind of immediate troubleshooting combined with pastoral care illustrates the way Cardinal O'Malley has faced an entirely different storm - clergy sex abuse - in each of his assignments after St. Thomas: Fall River, Mass.; Palm Beach, Fla.; and Boston, where he is the current archbishop.

His efforts to restore the church's credibility are often mentioned - particularly by Italian newspapers - as factors that make "Cardinal Sean" as he is known, a possible candidate for the next pope.

The brown-robed Capuchin cardinal, of course, downplays any speculation that he would become the next pope. At a press conference in Boston after Pope Benedict announced his resignation, he told reporters: "I've bought a round-trip ticket, so I'm counting on coming home."

He also wrote in his Feb. 22 blog, "I know people like to root for the home team - who wouldn't want the pope to come from their home diocese - and, of course, I am honored to participate in the conclave. But, I assure everyone, no cardinal goes to the conclave with ambitions to be elected the Holy Father."

The fact that he writes a blog and has a Twitter account also endears him to many Catholics making him both accessible and in touch with the modern world.

His response to the clergy abuse crisis began in 1992, when he was appointed bishop of Fall River Diocese soon after news that dozens of children there had been molested by former priest, James Porter. As bishop, he quickly made pastoral care and financial settlement with victims a priority, and before the end of the year the main group of victims settled with the diocese.

Ten years later, Bishop O'Malley was assigned to another troubled diocese - Palm Beach - whose previous two bishops had resigned after admitting that, as priests, they had sexually abused minors.

He was in place less than a year before being assigned to the Archdiocese of Boston - the epicenter of the national clergy sex abuse scandal for more than a year - to succeed Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who resigned amid the scandal.

The day his Boston appointment was announced, Archbishop O'Malley met with sex abuse victims there and listened to their stories. He also urged Boston's Catholics to help him restore faith, imploring them to respond to the message given to St. Francis: "I ask you and plead with you: Repair my church," he said.

In Boston, as in other dioceses, he chose not to live in the usual homes for bishops and instead moved into the cathedral rectory. Less than a year after his installation he reached an $85 million settlement with more than 500 clergy sex abuse victims and sold off 43 acres of archdiocesan property, including the archbishop's residence. He has also consolidated parishes.

In 2008, two years after he was named cardinal, he joined a group of clergy sexual abuse victims at the apostolic nunciature in Washington to meet Pope Benedict XVI during his U.S. visit.

Thomas Groome, director of Boston College's Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry, said Cardinal O'Malley's response to the abuse crisis and its victims stems from "his great heart for the poor and marginalized."

"Here in Boston, people have come to appreciate him a great deal. He is very low-key and comes across as a quiet person. Yet, when he speaks, he does it well and decisively. And he has a wonderful sense of humor," he said in an email.

Sean Patrick O'Malley was born June 29, 1944, in Lakewood, Ohio, and joined the Capuchins in 1965. Following his ordination in 1970, he earned a master's degree in education and a doctorate in Spanish and Portuguese literature from The Catholic University of America, where he also taught from 1969 to 1973. He speaks Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French and German.

As a priest working in the Washington Archdiocese in the 1970s, he founded and directed the Spanish Catholic Center, which provides English classes and a free dental and medical clinic. He also founded the archdiocese's Spanish-language community newspaper, El Pregonero.

In 1978, he was made Washington archdiocesan episcopal vicar for the Hispanic, Portuguese and Haitian communities and executive director of the archdiocesan Office of Social Ministry.

He was named coadjutor bishop of St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, in 1984 and became head of that diocese the following year.

Xavier Suarez, former mayor of Miami, highlighted the cardinal's work with immigrants, sensitivity to abuse victims and sense of humor in a Feb. 21 opinion piece in the Boston Globe, "Why Cardinal O'Malley should be pope."

He said one story the cardinal loves to tell is about when he first preached to inmates and, as he puts it, he "foolishly quoted from a biblical story in which some prisoners escaped captivity with the help of an angel."

"The very next day, there was a prison breakout," Suarez wrote, adding that the cardinal, a priest at the time, said he was "chided by his superior when the warden complained about the unhappy sequence of events."

Capuchin Poor Clare Sister Maria Elena Romero, a cloistered nun in Wilmington, Del., fondly remembers the cardinal when he was pastor at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Washington and when he celebrated Mass two years ago at the tiny Delaware monastery. She said it involved "no fanfare, no publicity, just a backyard celebration."

She said when the cardinal arrived, "he was just like any other brother. The fact that he was able to come to this house and partake in a simple celebration was a privilege for us. We felt him very much as our Capuchin brother."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970