Racked by turmoil for a year and a half, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston took a step toward unity Wednesday, installing as archbishop a humble Franciscan friar who immediately offered an olive branch to victims of clerical sexual abuse.
“The whole Catholic community is ashamed and anguished because of the pain and damage inflicted on so many young people and because of our inability and unwillingness to deal with the crime of sexual abuse of minors,” said Sean Patrick O’Malley moments after accepting the papal missive making him Boston’s sixth archbishop.
The 59-year-old cleric took office in a two-hour ceremony filled with traditions dating to the dawn of Christendom, bursting with optimism and touched with humor.
More than 2,500 guests packed the Cathedral of the Holy Cross here, a vast Gothic structure whose services have been sparsely attended since the sexual abuse crisis erupted in January 2002.
After two trumpets heralded a processional march composed by 18th century Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi, close to 1,000 processional participants streamed into the church. Many wore the ceremonial costumes of ancient Catholic honorary and fraternal groups. The entry parade included about 800 priests -- approximately half the Roman Catholic clergy in greater Boston -- attired in white chasubles that swirled as they neared the altar.
As he entered the 128-year-old cathedral, O’Malley was met with thunderous applause. The new archbishop beamed as he accepted the cathedral’s cross, which is said to contain a sliver from the cross on which Jesus was crucified.
But despite the time-honored ritual, O’Malley used the installation ceremony to separate himself from excessive pomp. He announced that he would be known henceforth as “Archbishop Sean,” a folksy gesture that would have seemed unthinkable in the regime of his predecessor, Cardinal Bernard Law.
O’Malley wore the hooded brown robe of his Capuchin order under an unadorned white chasuble. He wore sandals, footwear preferred by the Capuchins as a symbol of austerity. He asked that members of the Knights of Columbus not form an arch with their swords, a ritual at previous archbishops’ installations.
The new archbishop also banned lavish celebrations, opting for a small reception at his new chancery. Only cookies, coffee and finger sandwiches were served.
Law, who resigned in disgrace last December, declined an invitation to attend his successor’s installation. But Bishop John McCormack of New Hampshire, a former Law aide under fire for his role in the abuse scandal, was among dozens of bishops in attendance.
Massachusetts Democratic Sens. John F. Kerry and Edward M. Kennedy arrived at the cathedral together, flanking Kennedy’s wife, Victoria, who hobbled in on crutches after a boating mishap. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino expressed the enthusiasm of many who were present when he said: “He’s the messiah. He’s come to bring this church back together.”
O’Malley also spoke in Spanish and Portuguese before delivering his homily in English. As part of the Mass, he had prayers offered in a half-dozen other languages, some read by women.
But even as he apologized to clerical abuse victims and thanked them for coming forward, O’Malley aligned himself with the Vatican on another hot-button issue.
“Each and every person counts in God’s sight,” he declared. “The Gospel of Life will always be the centerpiece of the church’s social gospel.”
O’Malley, an Ohio native raised in Pennsylvania, worked with poor, Spanish-speaking residents of Washington as head of that city’s Centro Catolico. He was bishop in the U.S. Virgin Islands and was credited with stabilizing the diocese of Fall River, Mass., after a sexual abuse scandal there in the 1990s.
O’Malley also won praise in his most recent assignment as bishop of Palm Beach, Fla., another scandal-ridden diocese.
In another departure from the stern demeanor of his predecessors, O’Malley joked in his homily about his sun-drenched duty in “lovely vacation spots.” O’Malley said his Capuchin leader often asked, “When will you get a real job?” Surveying the faces in Boston, O’Malley quipped: “Brother Paul, does this count?”
One Boston parish priest said that along with O’Malley’s candor, he welcomed the new archbishop’s humor and humility.
“There is nothing to laugh about in any of this,” said Father Frank Clougherty. “But I just don’t think we’re going to get through this without a sense of humor. The level of depression in the clergy is terrible, and the lack of direction is awful.”
But several dozen protesters outside the cathedral were less generous.
“Did he mention that any of those [abusive] priests should be prosecuted?” asked Robert Hatch Jr., 46, who said he was abused by a priest at age 16. “No.”
Added Susan Renehan, who said she was molested for years by a priest as a girl in central Massachusetts: “It just all sounds the same to me. It’s ‘blah-blah-blah healing.’ ”
Inside the cathedral, a contingent of clergy from other denominations said O’Malley might succeed in repairing the Boston church.
“His reputation suggests that if anyone has the ability to do what needs to be done, he does,” said Rabbi Michael Manitoff, president of the Massachusetts board of rabbis.
Close to 500 abuse claims that could total tens of millions of dollars are pending against the Boston archdiocese. More than 250 priests were cited in the scandal stretching back six decades. Church attendance is down, and donations have shrunk since the crisis began.
But, as he took the reins of the troubled archdiocese that launched the worldwide clerical abuse crisis, O’Malley sounded hopeful.
“Though we live through a sad chapter of the church’s history,” he said, “we must recall that it is a chapter, not the whole book.”