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December 8, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 164




Claire Schaeffer-Duffy The archbishop's announcement

By Claire Schaeffer-Duffy, NCR contributor

It was the best news I had heard in a long, long time. On Wednesday, Dec. 3, the Boston archdiocese announced that it would sell the cardinal's residence and 28 surrounding acres to help cover the cost of its $85 million settlement with victims of clergy sexual abuse.

The announcement surprised everyone here in Massachusetts and became the headline story in Thursday's Boston Globe. According to the newspaper, church officials had said for more than a year that they would not sell the ornate, four-story mansion. The decision to do so was made by the man most entitled to enjoy the luxurious residence, Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley.

The archbishop said he recognized the cardinal's estate has "great historical and sentimental value," but economic necessity and a desire to be open and fair about the archdiocese's financial reckoning with victims prompted his announcement to sell. O'Malley does not live in the mansion but in the rectory of Holy Cross Cathedral, located in Boston's working-class South End, and he has pledged not to use any parish or capital campaign funds for the sexual abuse settlement due to be paid on Dec. 21. The cardinal's estate and its surrounding property, about half of which is being sold, is the only large parcel of land the archdiocese owns.

Archbishop John J. Williams acquired the 60-acre campus in the late 19th century to build a seminary in what was then a suburban area. In the early 1920s, the Keiths, an affluent Catholic family, built a house for William's successor, Archbishop William H. O'Connell. Described by one Boston Catholic as "the jewel in the property assets of the archdiocese," the Italianate palazzo that sits atop a hill overlooking Commonwealth Avenue was built to make a statement.

"It was presented in a Boston that up until that time didn't accept Catholics, and it was unconsciously an in-your-face presentation of what Cardinal O'Connell felt the church had grown to be by the 1920s," said Boston College historian, Thomas H. O'Connor. According to O'Malley's plan of sale, the archdiocese will keep the western half of the campus where St. John's seminary and the chancery are situated but the "jewel" will go.

It is "very important," O'Malley said, "for the archdiocese to step up to the plate and make whatever sacrifice is necessary to bring about a settlement and thus further the process of healing and reconciliation."

If we were living in gentler times, I might have glossed over the archbishop's announcement, chalked it up as an example of a prelate doing what is obviously necessary according to Christian teaching as well as an accountant's ledger. After all, how is that we, who profess faith in a homeless, itinerant God, have come to own such opulent properties, built for show rather than service?

But the times are not gentle or yielding. "My way or the highway" has become the rule of thumb for international and domestic politics. This cruelly rigid worldview has locked us into an unending cycle of greed, distrust, and violence. In my joy, excessive maybe, over the archbishop's flexibility, I realized how starved I am for examples of conciliatory gestures from public leaders.

Money is an incomplete solution to the deep divisions caused by the clergy sex abuse scandal but the archbishop's willingness to sell his "jewel," a course of action recommended by many victims and their advocates, is an important step towards restoring trust. Archbishop O'Malley is a Capuchin Franciscan, and I can't help but think that his decision to divest was inspired by the teachings of St. Francis who instructed his friars to "appropriate nothing for themselves, neither a house, nor a place, nor anything else." Live as "strangers and pilgrims in this world," the saint advised, "poor in temporal things but rich in virtue. This should be your portion because it leads to the land of the living."

In this season of war and rampant over-consumption, the archbishop's decision to simplify is a refreshing example of right priorities. I only pray more public leaders will follow suit.

Schaeffer-Duffy, a longtime contributor to NCR, is a part-time writer and full-time member of the SS. Francis and Therese Catholic Worker in Worcester, Mass.

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