Archbishop Choice Seen As Imminent
Pittsburgh's Bishop Called Top Candidate

By Walter V. Robinson and Michael Rezendes
Boston Globe
June 8, 2003

The appointment of Boston's new archbishop is imminent, according to knowledgeable church officials, who said that Bishop Richard G. Lennon knows he is about to be replaced and the archdiocese has already identified at least three sites that may be used for the announcement.

In interviews last week, church officials said they believe that Pope John Paul II's choice to head the most troubled of American archdioceses is likely to be made public this month, with this Tuesday the earliest possible date.

And some church officials privy to internal discussions said they now believe that -- even if the decision has not been finalized -- the most likely choice is Bishop Donald W. Wuerl of Pittsburgh. A spokesman for Lennon, however, asserted that any talk about Wuerl, or any other candidate, is nothing more than speculation. Wuerl, who is 62, has been bishop of Pittsburgh since 1988. Since Cardinal Bernard F. Law resigned Dec. 13 and Lennon became the interim leader of the archdiocese, Wuerl's name has been on nearly every list compiled by church scholars of the men who might become Boston's sixth archbishop.

Several other bishops have also been mentioned as having the credentials for the Boston assignment. They include two sitting archbishops, Harry J. Flynn of Minneapolis-St. Paul and Edwin F. O'Brien of the Military Services, head of all US military chaplains.

If Wuerl (pronounced "whirl") is the pope's choice, the Boston archdiocese would be in the hands of a Vatican favorite, who, like Law, is a doctrinal conservative with a top-down approach to his flock. Wuerl holds a doctorate, is the author of seven books, including a widely circulated adult catechism; and hosts a weekly television program -- "The Teaching of Christ" -- that is seen nationwide on church television stations. (The show airs five times weekly on Boston Catholic Television.) And unlike Law, Wuerl has a strong management record and an inclination to confront problems -- such as sexual abuse by priests -- that Law was slow to address. Wuerl, however, has made public very little information about the extent of the sexual abuse problem among priests in his own diocese.

In filling a prestigious posting that some bishops might find too daunting a challenge, the Vatican might see Wuerl as a safe choice, according to several church scholars. The Pittsburgh native was ordained in Rome and spent more than a decade at the Vatican, where he came to know Cardinal Karol Wojtyla before he became pope, and where he remains well-connected.

When the Globe learned last week that church officials were focusing on Wuerl as Law's apparent successor, archdiocesan officials moved quickly to insist publicly that Wuerl is just one of a number of possible choices.

The Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, the archdiocesan spokesman, declined to discuss Lennon's replacement. "I am not going to make any comment concerning speculation about a successor," Coyne said after conferring with Lennon. Coyne acknowledged, however, that more than a week ago he began considering sites where the new archbishop might choose to make his first public appearance.

Among at least three parishes he might choose to visit, according to one church official, is St. Anthony's in Allston. Officials are also considering public events at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Brighton and a homeless shelter administered by Catholic Charities, the archdiocese's social services arm. Left undecided, for now, is whether the new archbishop might choose for its powerful symbolism a parish where children were sexually molested, according to one official familiar with the planning. There was at least one such case years ago at the Allston parish.

While the date of the announcement could not be determined, the Vatican typically announces the appointment of American bishops and archbishops at noon on Tuesdays in Rome -- 6 a.m. in Boston.

With preparations underway, it became increasingly clear to officials of the archdiocese that Lennon's assignment as apostolic administrator is nearing its conclusion. One clear signal: According to two officials, Lennon is frustrated that he cannot make important decisions out of concern that the new archbishop might find them unacceptable.

The stagnation in settlement discussions between the archdiocese and lawyers representing more than 520 alleged victims of sexual abuse by priests is the most public example of how Lennon's status has hampered resolution of a major issue, according to one of the church officials.

Against that backdrop, Lennon has been doing his best to prepare a menu of carefully-considered choices for the new archbishop. Indeed, according to one official, any offer to settle the sexual abuse cases that Lennon might make before his replacement is formally named would be agreed upon by both men.

Lennon has drawn criticism for not reaching out aggressively to heal divisions among his own priests, with disaffected yet devout lay Catholics and, especially, with the victims of sexual abuse. But out of public view, according to church officials, he has worked tirelessly to bring management and fiscal controls to the archdiocese, where longtime lapses in judgment about sexually abusive priests are now seen as symptomatic of other major shortcomings that went unaddressed for years.

Officials who have worked closely with Lennon say he most often works from about 5 a.m. until late in the evening. Since last December, he has taken only a half day off, said one of the officials.

Although the timetable remains uncertain, the officials said they expect the new archbishop to be in Boston for a series of events surrounding his appointment, and to return to his home diocese for a month or so to wrap up his work there before returning to confront the remarkable challenges of the Boston assignment.

In comments last week, church officials said Lennon is likely to stay at the new archbishop's side at least through the summer.

During the transition, according to one archdiocesan official, Lennon will provide the new archbishop with "a sense of clarity" on how to solve problems that include the archdiocese's fiscal stability; its capacity to pay for and deliver services to the poor; and its developing plan to close as many as 40 parishes.

The church officials, speaking out of a mixture of conviction and hope, said they believe the Vatican will promote Lennon to head a diocese of his own.

Given the importance of the Boston archdiocese -- it is the nation's fourth largest -- Boston's new archbishop would expect to become a cardinal. The last four have all been cardinals, and Law was Boston's archbishop for just 14 months before his elevation to cardinal in 1985.

Thomas Farragher and Stephen Kurkjian of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 6/8/2003.


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