'Central Casting Has Sent You a Different Kind of Bishop'

Beliefnet's Most Inspiring Person of 2003 wears sandals, fights with insurance companies, and is healing the Boston archdiocese.

"Hello, I'm Archbishop Sean." The man who has turned the tide for Boston's heartsick Catholics, tackling the archdiocese's clergy sexual abuse crisis head-on, greeted Beliefnet in an unassuming cardigan and Capuchin robe.

Over a lunch of broccoli soup and sandwiches, the archbishop spoke of literature, Amish farms, and his fellow Franciscans' mission work in Papua New Guinea.Later, in an interview, he talked about insurance companies' stalling tactics, the "ambiguity" of lay group Voice of the Faithful, and the failure of bishops to meet with victims.

Why do you think you're the person chosen to be the "fixer"? What is it about you that makes you singularly capable of this job?

I don't know that I am. But sometimes you rise to the occasion. I've been bishop in four dioceses now and I've never received any rationale for why I was named to the diocese, or any set of instructions. They just said, that's it, for woe or for weal. If it works out, wonderful, if it doesn't, well. But of course to settle required coming up with the money, which we didn't have, so we had to work on a loan. As I told my priests, I used to think that Franciscan poverty was not having any personal property, but I said, "that was before I owed anyone $136 million." [laughs] As the Irish say, that's a lot of money no matter how fast you say it.


Your style is so different from Cardinal Law's to begin with, and then you rode in on a white horse to rescue the diocese. How have you been conscious of being a similar or different leader?

When I went to Fall River [the Massachusetts diocese O'Malley headed in the 1990s], I said, "Central casting has sent you a different kind of bishop." Part of the advantage of being a friar is that people don't expect me to be like other bishops.

I'm always sort of pained by the comparisons, but I think people accept the fact that as a Capuchin, I'm going to do things differently from the way other bishops would have done. People are comfortable with that--and sometimes amused or frustrated... (laughs)

Besides wearing a cool brown habit and sandals, what else is different about you?

Probably the way I preach is different from a lot of bishops. The interests I would have because of my background--interest in missions, in Latin America. In my own experience, running a social service agency in Washington, D.C., being a language teacher. The typical profile of the American bishop is diocesan priest, student in Rome, canon lawyer, work in the chancery. I haven't done any of those things [laughs]. I suppose it means I have a different way of looking at things. I'm not saying it's better or worse, it's just the reality.

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Interview by Deborah Caldwell and Laura Sheahen
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