In Boston, Church Seeking a Savior Could Get Twin Cities' Archbishop Flynn

By Warren Wolfe
Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune [Boston MA]
April 28, 2003

BOSTON -- The Archdiocese of Boston is a Catholic church community in search of salvation.

It faces a criminal grand jury investigation, more than 500 sex-abuse lawsuits that could cost $100 million to settle, plummeting church attendance and giving, and its finances are in shambles. It has mortgaged the chancery and the cardinal's residence, will sell 11 properties and is considering bankruptcy protection.

Many of its 2.1 million members live between hope and despair as they spar with their leaders four months after Cardinal Bernard Law resigned as archbishop in disgrace over his acknowledged mishandling of sexually abusive priests.

"Whoever the Vatican picks to replace Cardinal Law, he'll have the toughest job in the Catholic Church," worshiper James O'Malley said after a mass at Holy Cross Cathedral in Boston. "What we need is a strong CEO with the patience of a saint and the heart of Christ.

What Boston could get is Twin Cities Archbishop Harry Flynn, considered a top contender to be the next archbishop of Boston.

"Archbishop Flynn has said many times it's not a job he wants -- probably a job that nobody really wants," said Donald Briel, who heads the Center for Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

A papal decision could come soon if Vatican officials determine that they can't wait for the interim administrator to resolve Boston's legal and financial troubles. Fixing those problems first would allow a new archbishop to concentrate on pastoral healing.

In recent weeks, Flynn and Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh have frequently been mentioned as likely candidates for Boston -- or for Philadelphia, to replace retiring Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua.

Flynn turns 70 Friday. If he is sent to Boston or Philadelphia, he will almost certainly be elevated to become the ninth U.S. cardinal, one of about 112 princes of the church who lead its 1 billion Catholics and choose its popes.

Boston's stature

The Boston Archdiocese is a uniquely American Catholic institution. It is to the church what the New York Yankees are to baseball, Carnegie Hall to music, Broadway to theater.

It is the fourth-largest of the 196 Catholic dioceses in the United States, behind the more populated areas of Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City, and an example for Catholics of overcoming centuries of anti-Catholic prejudice.

Begun in 1808 in a city of Yankee Puritans for a handful of French and Irish immigrants, the archdiocese swelled in importance with the massive influx of Irish who grew from an embattled minority to dominate the city's political and religious institutions.

"Boston has had several strong cardinals, but never one who was a true leader of Catholics in America," said David O'Brien, a church historian at the College of the Holy Cross in nearby Worcester, Mass. "But it has had a national voice and a colorful cast of characters."

Protection of priests

A civil-rights activist while bishop of a poor diocese in Missouri, Law strode into Boston like a "Gunsmoke" marshal in 1984 to restore peace and bring more forceful leadership to a community fractured by racial strife.

"The issues that Cardinal Law faced were different," O'Brien said, "but the expectations people had of him -- the adulation he received as a sort of savior who would heal the church in Boston -- were pretty much what people want in the man who will replace him."

Law quickly took to the majesty of the office, becoming an insular leader and the keeper of the closed financial records.

He became a voice for "moderate conservatism" -- a reflection of the pontiff -- upholding church teachings to care for the oppressed and needy, opposing abortion and preserving the sanctity of the priesthood and the hierarchy.

It was his protection of his priests -- and the church's good name -- that led to open rebellion against Law last year.

In investigative articles that won a Pulitzer Prize, the Boston Globe reported that Law and several of his bishops for years protected priests who had sexually abused children, moving some priests to new parishes without warning the congregations, paying victims more than $30 million. A settlement last year with 86 victims of defrocked priest John Geoghan added another $10 million.

Law testified in lawsuits and before a grand jury investigating whether his chancery had illegally shielded molesters that he supervised from prosecution.

New allegations, damning information in court-ordered releases of church documents and admissions by Law fell like acid on Boston's faithful.

"It was like getting punched in the stomach every morning for a year when I opened the Globe," said historian James O'Toole of Boston College, where he has written extensively about Boston's cardinals.

Chorus of opposition

After mass one Sunday in January 2002, two dozen lay Catholics formed Voice of the Faithful. It quickly grew to more than 30,000 members nationally as the scandal spread.

Some in the Boston archdiocese began calling for Law's resignation, a chorus that swelled to half of Boston's Catholics, according to public opinion polls, and a new group of diocesan priests called the Boston Priests Forum.

In an unprecedented act, 58 priests wrote a letter to Law asking him to resign. It was given to him in December as he boarded a plane for Rome to meet with the pope. Law resigned a few days later.

Law's newest aide, Bishop Richard Lennon, was named interim administrator.

In four months, Lennon has sought to settle the lawsuits.

"I think he's doing as good a job as he can; he's begun to meet with priests and has visited many churches," Bullock said, ". . . but he's trying to solve problems without tying the hands of the next archbishop, and it can't be done. I'm afraid much of the healing must await a new archbishop."

Support for Flynn

Speculation about who will succeed Law is based on past Vatican appointments, the strengths of presumed candidates and the diocese's needs.

Since Law resigned to become chaplain for nuns at a Maryland convent, Flynn has been on most observers' short list.

In Flynn's favor are his orthodox support of Vatican teachings and policies -- an absolute requirement of Pope John Paul for such a post -- his pastoral and collegial leadership style, fundraising success and excellent record with sexual-abuse issues.

He was credited with bringing healing to the devastated Diocese of Lafayette in Louisiana after he was named bishop there in 1986. In the church's worst sex-abuse scandal to that point, seven priests who had been shuffled among parishes were accused of molesting children. Two priests went to prison, and the diocese paid $22 million to more than a dozen victims.

In 1994, Flynn succeeded Archbishop John Roach in the Twin Cities.

As the current sex-abuse scandal was exploding last spring, Flynn led the national Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse and quickly developed a national policy adopted by the bishops last June in Dallas. It was approved -- with modifications -- by the Vatican three days after Law resigned.

Working against Flynn, some observers say, is his age. Although he's apparently in good health, tradition calls for a younger choice for a major archdiocese. As a cardinal, he could remain in office until age 80.

Also, some in the Vatican felt that the sex-abuse policy he engineered went too far.

Flynn has spoken with passion about his compassion for the victims of child sex abuse he has met, but he has had a shaky relationship with a survivors group in Minnesota.

After months of testy communication with the local chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, he arranged a meeting with the group's leaders but canceled it when they publicly issued an agenda with 15 demands.

That concerns some Boston lay leaders, but probably not Vatican officials, who would worry more about a bishop too cozy with survivor groups.

'Natural allies'

"What we need in a new archbishop is, first, somebody who can get these lawsuits settled -- deal openly, honestly and directly with the victims and get it done," said Jim Post, Voice of the Faithful president.

"Then he needs to deal with the financial mess -- get people back in the pews and giving again. But to do that, he must be a strong spiritual leader who also is willing to listen -- really listen -- to the priests and laity in Boston," he said.

O'Toole, the historian, cautions against expecting an American democratic style of leadership.

"Change takes a while," he said, "when for 2,000 years the model for your bureaucracy has been the Roman Empire." Warren Wolfe is at


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.