Resurrection: The Archdiocese of Boston Rebuilds

The clergy sex abuse scandal exploded onto front pages across the country in 2002. A painful decade later, the Archdiocese of Boston has begun to rebuild. But a stubborn question remains: What kind of man wants to become a priest?
boston archdiocese catholic church rebuild after sex abuse scandal

A hallway at St. John’s Seminary. / Photo by Matt Kalinowski

Archbishop Seán Patrick O’Malley arrived in Boston in July 2003 to find an archdiocese in turmoil. Even before the sex abuse scandal, the church had been dealing with a severe money crunch, owing to declining membership and the cost of operating its 357 parishes. The archdiocese was running a $15 million annual deficit and faced a separate bill of $104 million to repair church buildings. Collections, meanwhile, had dropped precipitously, partly because parish attendance had plunged from 76 percent of Catholics in 1960 to just 16 percent—and partly because the faithful who were still attending, and who hadn’t fled after the scandal broke, were reluctant to donate money that might wind up being used to pay for lawyers and million-dollar settlements. The 2002 main fundraising drive had brought in about half as much as the one in 2001.

That same year, writing in the Catholic magazine America, Frederick Gluck, a former managing director of the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, laid out the strategic approach that a business professional might use to turn around the Church. He outlined the problems with management (“resisting change”), membership (“no longer committed”), finances (“revenues drying up”), and personnel (“the church is no longer the first choice of the best and brightest”). He advised a new direction for the Church, including changes in leadership, cuts in staffing and expenses, the closing of unprofitable operations, and better recruiting. “Turnaround situations,” Gluck wrote, “always require radical action.”

The 59-year-old O’Malley was ­officially installed as the head of the Archdiocese of Boston at a ceremonial Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End. Wearing the beard, simple brown robe, and sandals of the Capuchins—a Catholic religious order that requires a life of austerity and simplicity—O’Malley acknowledged the pain and damage inflicted upon innocent victims, and the Church’s failure to report the crimes. “How ultimately we deal with this present crisis in our Church will do much to define us as Catholics of the future,” he said. “We must not flee from the cross of pain and humiliation.”

On his second day as archbishop, O’Malley began his overhaul. He fired the lawyers he’d inherited and replaced them with a team led by Thomas Hannigan, who’d overseen negotiations with the Fall River victims in the early 1990s. In contrast with the adversarial approach taken by Law and his lawyers, O’Malley and Hannigan dropped all challenges to the allegations, met personally with representatives of the more than 800 victims, and within a week offered a $55 million settlement. Negotiations accelerated, and five weeks later, in early September 2003, O’Malley and Hannigan participated in a six-and-a-half-hour mediation session with the victims’ lawyers. O’Malley successfully made a personal appeal, saying that a settlement costing more than $85 million would bankrupt the archdiocese. “That same message coming from Cardinal Law would have been dead on ­arrival,” Robert Sherman, a victims’ lawyer, later told the Globe. “When Archbishop O’Malley said he couldn’t give any more, we accepted it. We tested what he said, but we have come to accept the archbishop as a man of honesty and integrity.”

Having arrived at a settlement agreement, O’Malley next had to figure out how to pay for it. Selling off some of the archdiocese’s vast holdings in land and property emerged as the obvious answer, and O’Malley started with the bishop’s mansion in Brighton, a 77-year-old Renaissance Revival residence at the heart of what was known as “Little Rome,” and the place he’d been calling home. When Boston College agreed to buy the mansion, along with 43 acres of surrounding land, for $99.4 million in April 2004, O’Malley announced that he’d be moving into the modest rectory at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.

From there, O’Malley turned his attention to the archdiocese’s long-standing financial problems. There simply weren’t enough active Catholics, let alone priests, to keep all the parishes in operation. In May 2004, he announced that 65 of the archdiocese’s parishes, nearly 20 percent, would be closed. At eight churches, furious parishioners held sit-ins to prevent the archdiocese from changing the locks, but all in all the restructuring was a success, as was the settlement with the sex abuse victims. But none of that changed the fact that as O’Malley continued his drive to save the archdiocese, he was saddled with one seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Where the archdiocese had nearly 1,400 priests in the 1970s, it was now down to just 856. He would need to find more, and soon.


One morning early in the fall of 2004, just a few weeks into his first year as a student at St. John’s, Eric Cadin walked into the refectory, the building’s ornate wood-paneled dining hall—where he was stopped by Darin Colarusso, a fifth-year student and former Air Force fighter pilot. Cadin was wearing flip-flops.

“Dude, no shower shoes in the refectory,” Colarusso said.

“What’s wrong?” Cadin asked.

“The first floor, we wear shoes. You wear those walking to the shower.”

At St. John’s, Cadin soon found, the rules were enforced by everyone. And that wasn’t the only way discipline and focus were instilled. The day began with prayer at 7 a.m. and ended with curfew at 11 p.m. The hours in between consisted of lots of instruction, lots of prayer, and a little free time. Guests were allowed only with permission, and alcohol, women, and children were all banned from the rooms. For men who’d worked and lived in the real world—the typical student enrolls in his late twenties—or had just spent a year surfing, it could be an adjustment.