'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.

BY: Interview by Deborah Caldwell and Laura Sheahen

 
"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.

Do you talk to Cardinal Law now?

Yes, occasionally. I saw him in Rome when I was there for Mother Teresa's beautification.

Is he mostly in Rome?

He's going to be there for the next few months, but he's been living in Clinton, Md.

How's he doing?

Cardinal Law has an incredible strength. I admire him. It was very difficult for him to step down--he wanted to be part of the solution. I'm sure he felt that great desire, but came to the point where he felt the best thing to do would be to leave, and he's done that. But he was here for 20 years. It's a long time.

The last five months have been a whirlwind for you. How does it feel to be in the midst of all of this?

It was quite a shock when I found out I was coming here, because I was quite sure that that would not be in the cards.

You were appointed to the Palm Beach diocese just a year or so ago...

That's right, yes. I had just finished the first religious academic year there, visited all the parishes, and met with all the priests. I felt as though I had a handle on the diocese. Then to be told I was coming to Boston was very intimidating, because I realized just how overwhelming it is. But I really felt the strength that came from so many people who had been praying. Everywhere I go people say, "I'm praying for Boston," and I think that that has made an incredible difference.

Although you must feel a burden because Boston is considered the center of the American Catholic Church. When you woke up on July 30th [the day of your installation Mass], were you terrified?

It was intimidating, but I realized we needed to do something to bring about a settlement quickly. Any kind of healing could not be achieved while all the litigation was going on, so that's why I decided to bring on a new attorney--someone I'd worked with in Fall River, where we had a similar type of situation with the Porter case where there were many, many victims. So in Fall River, we decided, "We'll settle the cases and then sue the insurance company," and that allowed us to settle the cases very quickly there.

Continued on page 2: »

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