As the second anniversary of his installation approached, Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley spoke to The Pilot about the issues that have marked his second year as Archbishop of Boston — ranging from archdiocesan reconfiguration to the aftermath of the sexual abuse scandal to the challenges to Catholic moral teachings in the public arena.
At the time of his installation, July 30, 2003, the archdiocese was engulfed in the scandal prompted by revelations of sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy.
Two years later, the archbishop recognized that, while no longer the focus of intense attention, the crisis “is still with us,” and the efforts are still ongoing to address the needs of victims and put safeguards in place.
At the national level, he said, the bishops have recently “fine-tuned” the policies approved in 2002 in Dallas to ensure the protection of children. At the archdiocesan level, the “Policies and Procedures for the Protection of Children” that were implemented in 2003 are also in the process of being updated and improved.
The archbishop, who last year expressed frustration at the slow pace at which the Holy See was processing cases of accused priests, said he is hopeful that they will be resolved in the near future.
"In Rome they are beginning to respond more quickly. Things should begin to move, at last, quicker. We all share the same anxiety as the priests who are waiting for answers to their cases," the archbishop said.
Six weeks after his installation, the archdiocese agreed to an $85 million settlement with 552 alleged victims of abuse, in what at the time was a record settlement. Since then, new victims have come forward. The archbishop told The Pilot that the archdiocese is expecting to resolve that pending issue in the near future.
He also expressed his hope that the abuse crisis in the Church increased general awareness of the sexual abuse of minors — a phenomenon that is not exclusive to the Catholic Church.
"Unfortunately, so much focus has been on the Church, that is gives the impression that this is only a Catholic problem; but this is a human problem, a societal problem," he said.
While Archbishop O’Malley spent much of his first year in Boston addressing the aftermath of the sexual abuse crisis, his second year was dominated by the implementation of the archdiocesan reconfiguration process.
On May 25, 2004 the archbishop announced plans to close 60 churches in an effort to reconfigure the resources of the archdiocese. The decreasing number of priests, the decaying church buildings, reduced financial resources and changing demographics were cited to explain the need for archdiocesan reconfiguration.
The implementation of reconfiguration proved to be more difficult than anticipated. While most parishes closed peacefully and parishioners moved to welcoming parishes, others vociferously protested their closing decisions. Beginning in August 2004, groups of parishioners at closing parishes occupied buildings, sued the archdiocese in civil court challenging the ownership of the parish property, and carried out other forms of protest.
"I did not expect it to be easy, but I did not expect it to be so contentious," the archbishop said.
He said the process through which parish closings were decided was carried out with “very broad consultation.” In his decision making process, he said he tried to “very closely” follow the recommendations of the archdiocese’s Presbyteral Council and of the Central Committee for Reconfiguration, a group of approximately 20 members that advised the archbishop on the closings.
"I didn't have any prejudice one way or the other on what parishes had to close or remain open," he said.
A pivotal moment in the parish closure process came last October when, in the face of mounting opposition, the archbishop appointed a committee of mostly lay people — known as the Meade-Eisner committee — to provide him with recommendations on how to improve the closing process. Subsequently, their mandate was expanded to review the most contentious closings and to provide recommendations in those cases.
Following their recommendations the archbishop reconsidered several decisions, including the re-opening of several closed churches.
"They were very pastoral and pragmatic in their approach," the archbishop said of the Meade-Eisner committee.
"Having seen the results of the decisions -- hindsight is always better than foresight -- they tried to make decisions that would bring healing to the whole diocese," he said.
"They reaffirmed that the vast majority of the decisions that were recommended by the Priest Council and the Central Committee were on solid basis. They were supportive of the whole process, and of the urgency of the archdiocese to take those steps," he said.
Asked about the fast pace of the process, the archbishop explained that his advisers urged him, “not to drag this [reconfiguration] out for too long, because this saps the energy and the tension of a faith community which should be focused on evangelization.”
Some have criticized the timing of the reconfiguration process saying it came too quickly in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis, at a time when Catholics were still trying to rebuild trust in the Church.
"Had I foreseen how difficult this was going to be, I am not sure I would have initiated things just when I did, but there was not a lot of leeway for the archdiocese struggling with a huge crisis."
Beyond the troubled waters of reconfiguration, in the past year the archbishop has been called upon to guide the archdiocese through a rising tide of legal and social issues with implications for Catholics. Same-sex marriage became a reality in Massachusetts little over one year ago. More recently, the Legislature approved a bill endorsing embryonic stem-cell research and cloning, and the governor is pushing forward in his efforts to reinstate the death penalty in Massachusetts. And only this week, an emergency contraception bill vetoed by the governor has also been opposed by the bishops of Massachusetts through its public policy arm, the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.
The archbishop said the Church speaks out on these issues not to advance her religious beliefs but to work for the good of society.
"As Catholics, we are not trying to impose our Catholic values or Catholic faith on anyone. The decisions that we make in public policy are based on a firm philosophical conviction that if we do not follow natural law, we are in a sure path to chaos," he said.
The archbishop continued, “On all these issues we obviously have very keen faith principles involved as Catholics, but we also see that the need for the common good and natural law is something that applies to all human beings, all societies.”
The archbishop clarified that the positions the Church take should not be dismissed simply as based on religious principles.
"Sometimes other religious groups articulate their expressions and their pronouncements on public policy in the language of faith and of scripture and revelation, and that has caused some politicians to simply dismiss all of these issues as being simply 'religious issues,' but in the Catholic Church we have articulated our social policy and our social teachings in a way that addresses the larger community and it's based upon philosophical, natural law principle that we believe are essential for human life and for the peaceful coexistence among peoples," he added.
Looking to the future, the archbishop stressed the preparations for the bicentennial of the archdiocese that will take place in 2008, and the importance of promoting vocations.
In a Pastoral letter issued last January he said that vocations are “everyone’s business,” and called for prayers for vocations in the context of the Year of the Eucharist.
The archbishop said there has been an increase in the number of both applicants to the seminary and those responding to vocational retreats.