2016-06-30
"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.

And that's what you did in Boston? Cut the insurance companies out of the picture?

That's right. Just said, "We'll deal with you afterwards," because we can't let this drag on for years.

What about the Cardinal's mansion? Was your decision to sell it strictly a matter of needing the money, or was it also about penance?

I had already decided I didn't want to live there. It's been my policy that whenever possible I'd live in the cathedral parish. The [residence] had become a symbol, but its meaning over the years has changed; I wrote an article [in the archdiocesan newspaper] about that.

In the past, the residence was a very important symbol for an immigrant community, a way of saying "we're important too," and people were proud of that. But as Catholics have become educated and affluent, the symbol has changed. It no longer has the same connotation.

We looked at the options for raising money for the settlements. I felt it was important to demonstrate where the monies were coming from, and assure them that the settlement was not going to be on the backs of the parishioners, or be detrimental to Catholic schools or to works of mercy, Catholic charity. We've done that by planning to sell the residence and the other land there. That along with what we would anticipate getting from an eventual settlement with the insurance company should be enough.

What do you think of the newly released audit report?

The bishops are really trying to live up to the commitments they made at their meeting in Dallas in 2002.

What action will be taken if dioceses don't comply? An angry phone call, or something more drastic?

I'm not sure, besides trying to embarrass them into complying, or perhaps--depending on how egregious the situation is--maybe the Holy See intervenes. But before the Holy See did that, it could only be through the goodwill of the U.S. bishops to follow through, since we can't legislate for other dioceses, except in very specific areas allowed by canon law. The dioceses themselves are still very autonomous.

I suppose, depending on which aspects of the charter the bishop chose to ignore, he could be reprimanded by the Holy See.

Would you call one of the non-complying bishops?

Oh, if I thought it would do any good!

During the years the scandal was brewing below the surface, bishops were under pressure to be good fiscal stewards and to protect the church against scandal. But as we've seen, they did all the right things in terms of finances and the bureaucracy, but they did the wrong things spiritually. That was a hard trend to buck, but you did. How?

I don't think we knew what other people were doing or not doing.

Didn't the bishops have closed-door discussions at their annual meetings in Washington...?

That's when things were beginning to be talked about. But before then...

In Fall River, what helped me was when I went there I decided the first thing I would do was meet with victims. I met with scores of [Father Porter's] victims. It brought home to me how damaged some people were by this experience, and the need to take it seriously. I suspect that in the past, people didn't realize the long-range effects that sexual abuse of children could have on their lives.

Did insurance companies tell you not to meet personally with the victims? Did anyone tell you it wasn't a good idea?

Insurance companies were more into litigation and stalling tactics, things like that. But although the lawyers in Fall River were nervous about me meeting with people, they understood.

It seems that in the past 10 years bishops have tended not to meet with victims.

Yes, I think that's unfortunate, because if they had, they would have had a greater insight into the depth of the problem and been more galvanized to address it energetically.

The 2002 Dallas meeting seemed so tense and horrible, even to outsiders watching the proceedings. What was it like as an insider?

It was awful. So depressing. It was the worst meeting in [my] 20 years as bishop. I felt sorry for the new bishops--that was the first meeting they'd gone to. I told them "it's not always this bad."

What is the biggest sin committed by hierarchy? People mention hubris, fear--what do you think it is?

Not taking this seriously enough. However, the psychiatric community was not helpful in the process either.

When I went to Fall River, every time there'd been a complaint against [Porter], the bishop removed him from the parish, sent him for treatment at very often a secular psychiatric institute, received a clean bill of health--"You can return this man to ministry"--and the bishop would send him back, and he'd have the same problem. This happened several times. What was the bishop thinking? He was too naive. But the psychiatrists were saying "Oh, he's cured, he's fine."

Bishop Gregory has said the main problem was that the bishops treated pedophilia as a sin, not a crime.

Yes, and focusing on the perpetrator, not the damage done to the victim. Even the psychiatrists. You'd have thought they would say, "You can't risk having him harm another child," but they wouldn't, thinking the child was fine. I don't think the psychiatric community was helpful. I don't think there was a grasp of what pedophilia was or the damage that it did.

What are the roots of the crisis? Some experts say that many of the abusive priests aren't pedophiles at all; rather, they're gay men with arrested sexual development. And in the spring of 2002, the Vatican made a statement suggesting that something had to be done about gay priests. What's your reaction to this?

Well, certainly the need to be selective in accepting people to the seminary and ordaining them, to make sure they are mature individuals capable of living their celibate commitment is uppermost in the minds of all bishops. The seriousness of living the celibate life--priests who don't want to live the celibate life need to leave the ministry.

It's becoming harder in contemporary culture for people to live a life of chastity. It's not considered a value by the dominant culture. The way sex is used in advertising and films has an impact even on the way people live out their own faith commitment. I grew up in a world where I didn't know anyone who was divorced. We thought it only happened in Hollywood. Just as the commitment to marriage has suffered, the commitment to the celibate life of the church has suffered. We need to reinforce that and support people making these commitments.

Can you assess where your flock is right now in the healing process?

It's difficult to make generalizations, but I've been trying to visit the parishes. I usually get to two, three, sometimes four parishes on a weekend. It's my experience that there is a lot of hope in the parishes--a lot of enthusiasm. That is very comforting. People realize we have other problems beyond just the abuse crisis--the fact that we have many churches that are becoming difficult to maintain.

Have you mentioned that on your parish visits--that certain parishes may have to close?

No, we haven't indicated any specific parishes, but there are a number of parishes that are unable to pay the bills and consequently endangering our pension system and our insurance system. We know that in the future we won't be able to staff all those parishes anyway, so now is the time identify what is the best use of our resources. We have all these churches built in days when people walked to church and there were many different languages spoken. There are many neighborhoods where there is just one Catholic Church right after another.

So you've got a pretty rough year ahead. You've had a whirlwind five months and now here you are, plunging in yet again.

That's the next challenge. We're trying to come up with a plan to determine how many parishes would be needed in an individual area, and then how to distribute the buildings: which buildings can be used and which should be sold. A lot of the buildings are very old, and that's another problem. We just haven't studied them, and the buildings in the city--there are about 200 church buildings in the city of Boston--and they estimate it would cost $140 million to repair those buildings. The problem is once you begin repairs--then there are building codes. You have to make them handicapped accessible, elevators, things like that. That can be another $50 million added to the bill.

So, many things are converging. We know that in a few years we won't have enough priests to have people stationed at all these places. And some of these parishes have become very small anyway. And then there are other areas where parishes have grown very large and you don't want to have just one priest working there.

What is the laity's role--both with regard to the abuse crisis and in terms of church closings?

We are anxious to have effective parish pastoral councils and dioceses pastoral councils. In fact, we are in the process of reconstituting that. We hope that the council of priests will be up and running in February and the laity by March. In addition, we'll have a committee that will deal just with the reconfiguration, with lay and clerical representatives from each of the regions.

What role do you think [the lay group] Voice of the Faithful ultimately played here and nationally in terms of moving the ball forward with the scandal?

I don't know. I don't know that the church would have done anything differently had they not existed. Obviously, we have been confronted with a scandal, we have tried to deal with it, sometimes better sometimes worse, but it's not something that we're not going to deal with.

But they sent email everywhere, letting people know what was going on and what they thought the laity should do. The group has connected people in a way that wasn't easy or even possible before.

I really don't know what the impact has been. Certainly they get a lot of play in the media...

Does the hierarchy feel threatened by VOTF?

Some bishops are convinced that the [VOTF] leadership has an agenda which is incompatible with Catholic faith. What I find difficult is the ambiguity--they deny that they have an agenda, but do they or don't they? So our policy here [in Boston] is an ambiguous policy toward an ambiguous situation. They're functioning in some parishes, and we permit that, but we're not allowing them to extend into others for the time being until we're more comfortable with what they mean by "change the church."

So some bishops have problems with VOTF's thoughts about church structure [one of three VOTF planks]?

Yes. Their desire to help the victims--well, we have the same desire and encourage them to get on board and help us with that. Or to support good priests--well, we all want to do that.

What would you like to see lay people doing about the crisis? Obviously, you talked about the prayers that have been so helpful. What are some of the things you would like to see?

I'd like to see people become involved on the parish level and promote the ministries of the parish and particularly the parish council and to have their input on that level.

How do you restore trust? You did what you've already done and then--what?

I think more people see that we maybe haven't done everything perfectly, but if people are willing to be fair with the church they'll realize that we've taken the problem very seriously and have tried to use all of our resources to deal with it.

I want to shift gears and ask some questions about you. What do you pray for, and are your prayers answered?

Oh, all of our prayers get answered. Sometimes it's "no," sometimes it's "yes," but they're all answered. I pray very much for the priests. They are going through a very difficult time. The reporting of sexual abuse within the last several months--abuse that occurred over the last 50 years--gives the impression all this is happening in the church right now. And that's not a fair characterization. The priests are hurting a lot, and I pray for them. I pray for vocations and I'm encouraged by the strength of our seminarians. I mean, for young men to go to the seminary these days in spite of all of this.

You've said a vocations director feels like he's selling tickets to the Titanic.

We are still getting young men, not in the numbers we'd like to, but I think the men who are there are very focused and know they are responding to God's call, despite what their peers and their family and everyone else may think.

Is there anyone who particularly inspires you--in this crisis situation and then in life in general?

I have always been a great admirer of Mother Teresa. She was so focused on service, on Christ, and the poor, and she really lived the Gospel. And then, of course, I became a Franciscan, because I was inspired by St. Francis, who speaks to us about living the Gospel life.

If no scandal had happened and you could serve the church anywhere in the world doing whatever you felt called to do, where would you be and what would you be doing?

I went to the monastery with the hopes of going into the foreign missions. I would have been very, very happy to do that. As a priest I've worked with immigrants in Washington, D.C., where I was very happy, and I would have been happy there the rest of my life. I never expected to be bishop, but we commit ourselves to a life of obedience, and so you see God's will in the will of your superior.

Which writers and thinkers have influenced you?

Spiritual writers I like very much: Rene Voillaume, a French writer. Theologians: Von Balthasar, I read a lot of his works. With literature, Hispanic literature is my favorite. Latin Amercia has produced a lot of wonderful literature: Vargas Llosa, Garcia Marquez, Isabella Allende.

What is it about it that draws you?

The social upheaval of these developing countries has created a climate where there's great creativity.

What is your favorite Bible verse?

I wouldn't know where to start! But I'll tell you my motto--my episcopal coat of arms (every bishop has a scripture passage on his coat of arms). The Blessed Mother's last words in John's Gospel, at Cana: "Do whatever he tells you."

And you have.

Somebody said I should have changed my motto!

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