The Archbishop’s New Clothes

Bishop Sean O’Malley

Bishop Sean O’Malley

Brown is the new black this season in the Archdiocese of Boston. The recent appointment of the Franciscan Bishop Sean O’Malley as leader of the most disgraced and most aggrieved branch of the Catholic Church in America has changed the local face of the ecclesiastical hierarchy from stern to soft, arrogant to apologetic, as the office once held by the clean-shaven clerical businessman Cardinal Bernard Law is filled by a jovial bearded friar from the order founded by Saint Francis of Assisi. After enduring almost two years of having its public perception shaped by priests-gone-wild, it is as if someone at the Vatican finally thought to pick up a phone and order a “good priest” from central casting. O’Malley arrived in Boston ready for his close-up: no tailored black suit, no Roman collar, just a monkish brown robe tied off with a rope. Let the healing and the self-flagellation begin.

The press has eaten this stuff up. For ten years, O’Malley has been the Church’s go-to man where sex abuse is concerned. He comes to Boston from the scandal-shaken diocese of Palm Beach, Florida, where not one but two former bishops resigned after admitting to molesting boys. Before Palm Beach he headed the Fall River diocese on Massachusetts’ south shore. It was there that what was to become the unifying theme of his various episcopacies first revealed itself.

In a story recounted in the New York Times, among other places, Bishop Sean, as they knew him in Fall River, showed up unannounced one night at a rap session for victims of the notorious abuser-priest Father James Porter. Lawyers for the victims’ group had shut out all press and were prepared to turn any Church representatives away. They were taken aback, however, when the good Franciscan arrived at their door.

“Oh no, Bishop, you shouldn’t come in here without your lawyers,” one of the attorneys present is said to have advised. But O’Malley was undeterred. “I just want to listen,” he insisted, and listen he did.

For Sean O’Malley, newspapers have been rough drafts of hagiography ever since.

The bishop has been all but sainted even by the Boston Globe, which first broke the story of Cardinal Law’s ongoing cover-up of abuse by priests, quickly won a Pulitzer for its tireless coverage, and then churned out an insta-book well before the scandal was over. Having proved with Law’s resignation that the pen is mightier than papal appointment, the Globe now seems to view O’Malley as the archbishop the press built. And its editors have made no effort to conceal the joy they take in their creation. On July 2, the day after it was announced that O’Malley would take over, the Globe ran what was probably the largest front-page photograph in any daily paper since September 12, 2001. Nothing nearly so dramatic as burning buildings, of course: It was just a press conference still-frame of the brown-robed bishop, grinning through his beard, his arms spread wide, both palms stretched open. Above the picture, a hopeful headline: “O’Malley offers plea, pledge.” Below, the endearing back-story: “New leader’s life marked by intellect, sense of mission.” Sandwiched between these paeans, the picture is eleven inches wide. Any larger, it would’ve needed a centerfold.

That so venerable a watchdog as the Globe was all too ready to take the O’Malley bait suggests that the Catholic Church may have just pulled off its most impressive public relations coup since the Gospels turned a murdered rabbi into a king. But who could blame the Globe for biting? Bait, after all, tastes good. It’s the hook you’ve got to watch out for.

“You can’t help but be struck by the contrast between Cardinal Law’s formality and Bishop O’Malley’s personable, warm nature,” Stephen Pope, the chairman of Boston College’s theology department, told the Globe. But: “There could be something misleading in that — my impression is that Bishop O’Malley’s theology for the Church is exactly the same as Cardinal Law’s.”

In other words, though a change of rhetoric and a change of fashion are at hand, for real change, deep change, Catholics in Boston will likely have to wait. Under O’Malley, it will be apologies and payments to victims and then back to business as usual, back to a church ruled by the systemic sexual dysfunction that started this mess in the first place.

I was at Boston College myself recently, not to talk to the chairman of theology department but to have lunch, and even in the dining hall everyone seemed obsessed with the bishop’s appointment. BC is run by Jesuits, who, as a self-governing religious order, usually remain aloof where matters such as selecting new men to watch over parishes are concerned. The school, however, happens to be directly across the street from the Archbishop’s Residence, which crowns sixty acres of prime real estate the ever-expanding undergraduate campus would love to get its hands on.

From the few tables within earshot, I eavesdropped on an excited hubbub concerning what the future would bring for O’Malley and the Church in Boston. The prevailing opinion seemed to be that the new bishop would sell the Residence to get the archdiocese out of the debt so many abuse lawsuits had incurred. O’Malley’s appointment meant that victims would be paid; BC would expand; life would go on.

At my own table, one of my lunch partners that day was a canon lawyer, an expert in the legal system of the Vatican. Eighty years old, fifty years a Jesuit, he had seen the Catholic Church move toward reform and away again, toward and away, like some great breathing beast.

“People keep saying they think this guy will bring change,” he said. “That’s bullshit. He’s not interested in change. If he was, he sure as hell wouldn’t have the job.” The canon lawyer winked; he was retired now, and could speak however he pleased.

“And would you get a load of that guy!” he said. “That brown robe! That hemp belt! I just got a new belt myself, two weeks ago when I was in Germany. It’s a very nice belt: Hugo Boss, fifty-five Euros. But I don’t go showing it off to everybody.”

“You’ve got to admit it makes a good picture,” I said.

He smirked. “Sure, sure, but you know something?” He leaned in close, like he was letting me in on a secret, then he whispered, “We’re not always on camera.”

As for the possibility of O’Malley making a lasting difference in the Archdiocese of Boston or the wider Church, he said, “He wouldn’t know how to make a lasting difference if he wanted to. Know why? No sense of history. The man doesn’t have degrees in theology or canon law. How is he going to change the Church without really knowing how it works?

“His degrees are in Spanish and Portuguese literature, for god’s sake. All that means is he’s probably read Don Quixote in the original.”

The canon lawyer clucked his tongue then let out a small laugh, perhaps at the thought of his Church not as a breathing beast, but as a windmill, turning its arms when the wind was strong enough, then inevitably settling back to stasis, never really moving an inch.

“Come to think of it,” he said, “maybe O’Malley is the right man for the job after all.”

Peter Manseau is the author of Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son and, most recently, Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead. He founded Killing the Buddha with Jeff Sharlet, and the two wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible. Follow him on Twitter @petermanseau.