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Spotlight Report

At Mass, message of hope, healing

O'Malley visits church reeling from scandal

By Susan Ware, Globe Correspondent, 8/10/2003


CORRECTION: Because of reporting errors, the original version of this story as printed in the Globe City & Region section incorrectly said the victims advocacy group Survivors First is urging a $300 million settlement. The group believes the church has the ability to raise $300 million for a settlement by selling unused church property and collecting insurance. The story also should have noted that the church property valued at $160 million is unused, vacant property. The story also misstated the date archbishop Sean P. O'Malley met with a group of alleged victims after celebrating Mass at St. Michael's Church in Lowell. The meeting took place Saturday.


OWELL -- One day after making a $55 million settlement offer to 542 people allegedly abused by clergy members, Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley yesterday went to one of the parishes most damaged by the scandal to offer a personal message of understanding and comfort.

"I was anxious to celebrate the Eucharist with you. I am aware how much this community has suffered the most sexual abuse," O'Malley told the congregation at St. Michael's Church.

The Lowell parish was rocked by allegations that the late Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham sexually assaulted as many as 25 boys during his tenure there. Birmingham is alleged to have molested at least 50 boys at several parishes between his ordination in 1960 and his death in 1989.

Fox25 News reported last night that O'Malley met with about 15 of Birmingham's sexual abuse victims for two hours last night at a home in Hudson, N.H. Details of the meeting were not disclosed.

At St. Michael's Church yesterday, O'Malley said, "It is very easy to remember all of the things that are wrong with the Catholic Church. But today we are going to remember what is right."

O'Malley didn't specifically address the settlement offer and declined to talk with reporters after the Mass.

However, he greeted almost every parishioner -- and occasionally posed for photographs -- as they left the chuch.

The settlement offer, made nine days after O'Malley was installed as archbishop, would resolve claims from men and women who said they were abused as children by about 140 clergy members.

If accepted, the offer would be the largest lump settlement for clergy abuse since the scandal broke in early 2002. In June, the archdiocese of Louisville, Ky., agreed to pay $25.7 million to 243 people who said they were abused.

Because the $55 million would be divided among so many plaintiffs, lawyers for the alleged victims said they are considering the offer as a starting point for negotiations.

The Rev. Christopher Coyne, spokesman for the archdiocese, has declined to comment on the proposed settlement, saying both sides had agreed to not publicly discuss negotiations.

O'Malley delivered a homily on the Gospel of St. John with passion and humor, engaging the parishioners by speaking directly to them, using everyday situations to better explain his message.

Alam Thivierge, a lifelong parishioner, attended the Mass with his daughter Alanna. "I am very happy to see him come here. It is very healing for our parish," he said. "But I am tired of hearing about all of the money. It undermines the healing."

Larry Sweeney could not bring himself to enter the church for the Mass. Sweeney, 44, of North Chelmsford, said he is a victim of sexual abuse by Birmingham.

"People need to remember that Bishop O'Malley is putting on his robes in the very place where Birmingham molested me and many others," said Sweeney. "Many victims of clergy sexual abuse are sitting in there. They obviously are farther along than me."

Sweeney, however, said that O'Malley's appointment has begun to restore his faith. "For the first time I have hope," he said. "People have been saying that O'Malley's words are great, now let's see his actions. Well, I have seen them."

Larry Finn returned to St. Michael's to hear the bishop's message. Finn, 44, of Lowell, said four years ago he came to grips with the abuse he says he received from Birmingham when it was brought to his attention that his daughter may be in a potentially abusive situation with a daycare worker. The memories came flooding back and landed him in the hospital, he said.

Yesterday, he said he feels that O'Malley may be about change, and that good things may be beginning to happen.

Finn said, though, that the settlement offer means little. "The money is not what it is all about. It has been a long and trying few years for me," he said.

Paul Baier, president of Survivors First, an advocacy group for clergy abuse victims, said yesterday that his organization also sees the settlement offer as a starting point.

His group will outline changes it will seek when it holds a news conference at 1 p.m. today in front of the chancery.

Baier said the group will present a letter to O'Malley and five lawyers for the plaintiffs requesting that they proceed with caution when drawing up the settlement.

The letter, said Baier, will include six elements of what Survivors First say would make a fair and responsible settlement.

Baier said he is not a victim of clergy sexual abuse, but a lifelong Catholic committed to seeking change.

"The church and the plaintiffs have a historical opportunity to shape a comprehensive settlement," said Baier, who lives in Wellesley. "It is prudent for the church to be perceived as making a fair settlement as it tries to regain its role as a moral authority in Boston."

"This is a bellwether settlement," said Baier. "Twenty other major cities will look to Boston as a model."

Susan Ware can be reached at ware@globe.com.


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