After progress in Boston abuse crisis, archbishop turns to social issues

Posted: Friday, October 17, 2003

BOSTON (AP) With settlement talks resolved in the clergy sex abuse scandal, Boston Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley has started speaking out on social issues a sign to some that the archdiocese at the center of the Roman Catholic molestation crisis is finally starting to recover.

O'Malley defended the church's position against gay marriage at a recent conference of local religious leaders called ''The Summit of October to Save Marriage.'' The issue has been simmering in Massachusetts, which is awaiting a state Supreme Judicial Court ruling on the legal status of same-sex unions.

''Any redefinition of marriage must be seen as an attack on the common good,'' O'Malley said.

On another recent weekend, the archbishop led an anti-abortion march in Boston, telling the faithful in a homily beforehand: ''We're not about simply changing the laws. We're about changing a culture of death into a civilization of love.''

Church observers said it was inevitable that the new archbishop, who focused initially on quickly settling hundreds of sex abuse lawsuits, would start pressing the Roman Catholic Church's agenda on social issues even though some victims' advocates object.

''It's just that priorities are priorities and first things are first,'' said Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. ''He had to come on board and deal with the scandal before he dealt with anything else.''

When O'Malley was chosen by the pope to succeed Cardinal Bernard Law as head of the nation's fourth-largest diocese, he was described as a healing force but one who supports the church's conservative teachings.

O'Malley was installed July 30 as the head of the Boston Archdiocese, which has an estimated 2.1 million parishioners. He immediately focused on reaching a settlement with more than 500 plaintiffs who accused priests of molesting them and the archdiocese of covering up the scandal.

In the end, O'Malley even attended settlement talks in person and the church reached an $85 million agreement to settle the cases; the deal should be sealed by the end of October.

Now the church also is seeing progress raising money.

Earlier this month, the church released figures showing that fund raising, which had been battered last year by the abuse scandal, seemed to be rebounding. Total giving to the annual ''Catholic Appeal'' stood at $6.7 million $725,000 more than at the same time the previous year.

The crowds have dwindled outside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, where the archbishop traditionally celebrates Mass and where protesters by the dozens would gather during the height of the crisis to criticize O'Malley's predecessor.

However, a hearty few still show up on Sundays to continue their drumbeat of protest against the church and the scandal.

Paul Baier, president of Survivors First, a group that advocates for clergy abuse victims, said O'Malley's public steps on other issues come too soon at a time when tougher measures still need to be taken to remedy the church's sex abuse misdeeds.

''To get to the social issues, we need to first deal with this horrific problem of priests raping kids and bishops covering it up,'' Baier said.

And last week, a newly formed victims' rights committee of therapists, lawyers and child advocates called for independent oversight of the archdiocese's handling of abuse cases. It also pledged to review cases of alleged victims who believed their complaints have not been adequately investigated.

Philip F. Lawler, editor of Catholic World News, said he thought the church would feel the effects of the abuse scandal for a long time. But he said O'Malley ''has got to go on and lead the church in other ways.''

The Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and editor of America, a national Catholic weekly magazine, said he also expects O'Malley to speak out about the treatment of immigrants and the poor, two other issues of deep concern.

''The job of the archbishop is a big one,'' Reese said. ''The pastoral care of the people in the archdiocese, trying to influence public policy so that it serves the cause of justice and I think as he deals with the sex abuse crisis through settling these cases, he'll be able to focus more time and energy on all of these other issues.''

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