WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. After one bishop and then another in the Diocese of Palm Beach admitted they had molested boys, parishioners put their shaky confidence in the man sent to heal their wounds.
But Bishop Sean Patrick O'Malley is leaving to tackle even larger problems in the Archdiocese of Boston only nine months after he arrived, leaving Palm Beach Roman Catholics with yet another upheaval: their fourth new bishop in five years.
''The thing that I don't understand is why they even put him here, why they didn't put someone here who could be permanent in his role for years, instead of months,'' said Dale Gregory of Boca Raton, echoing the frustration of many parishioners.
''I think Palm Beach is hurting and trying to heal and it really has a leadership void because Bishop O'Malley wasn't here long enough to make a difference.''
Despite his short tenure, many say O'Malley at least started to help the diocese and its 225,000 Catholics recover from two molestation scandals and a case of financial wrongdoing. The Franciscan friar's sincerity and pledges of openness comforted parishioners and church leaders. His record in Fall River, Mass., where he cleaned up one of the most notorious clerical abuse cases, that of violent predator and former priest James Porter, also reassured local Catholics.
''Because of his reputation, what he brought was renewed confidence to the episcopacy, and also by being as open as he was and announcing that everything would be transparent, people were able to believe in him,'' said the Rev. Charles Notabartolo, vicar general of the Palm Beach Diocese. O'Malley quickly started carrying out the reforms he promised when the Vatican announced his appointment to Palm Beach last September.
He added a sheriff's sergeant and a rabbi to an independent review board formed earlier to handle abuse claims, while pledging to report all allegations to civil authorities and remove guilty priests. He publicly apologized to abuse victims and offered to meet with them.
''He focused us back on faith when we had all these other things going on,'' said Terri Parker, a parishioner at Saint Ignatius Loyola in Palm Beach Gardens.
Catholics say they also are reassured by the quick appointment of a successor, the Rev. Gerald Michael Barbarito, bishop of the Diocese of Ogdensburg in upstate New York. He will take charge soon after O'Malley is installed July 30 in Boston.
Barbarito will inherit a diocese with scandals that date back to 1998. That's when Bishop J. Keith Symons resigned after admitting he had previously molested five boys in three parishes, becoming the first U.S. prelate to step down after admitting sexual abuse of boys.
His replacement, the Rev. Anthony J. O'Connell, resigned in March 2002, after admitting serial molestation of an underage student at a Missouri seminary where he was rector. The Jefferson City, Mo., diocese paid a private $125,000 settlement to the accuser in 1996 with no admission of guilt. After O'Connell resigned from Palm Beach, three more suits alleging sex abuse were filed against him by other men.
A financial scandal hit the diocese just months later.
Church officials acknowledged that Robert J. Schattie, a diocesan financial manager, embezzled $400,000 in the early 1990s, but the diocese had hidden the theft at the time. Officials even recommended Schattie for a job at the Jewish Community Center, where he was later charged with grand theft and pleaded guilty to the crime.
Schattie was never charged in the church case, but signed an agreement to fully repay the diocese, which he has so far failed to do. He allegedly used the diocese money to buy a fishing boat, a Rolex watch and property.
Meanwhile, new abuse claims against the diocese continued to surface, prompting seven clergymen to resign or be removed from public ministry.
''I still think people are upset. I think their trust has been betrayed and it's going to be hard to regain that,'' Notabartolo said. ''We will regain that. But it's going to be a lot of hard work for us to do a better job of communicating what we do and making sure whatever we do is very transparent.''
Though Notabartolo and others in the diocese are saddened to lose O'Malley so quickly, they say they recognize that the Boston Archdiocese, where the abuse crisis began in January 2002, needed him more.
O'Malley replaces Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned as Boston archbishop in December amid public outrage over his failure to properly discipline abusive priests.
''I think we've gone to the bottom,'' said Judy Macloskey of Palm Beach Gardens. ''I don't think we can do anything but go up.''
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Diocese of Palm Beach: http://diocese.maco.net/
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