The appointment of Bishop Sean O'Malley to head the Boston Archdiocese just months after he was sent to rebuild the church in Palm Beach, Fla., shows he is trusted by the Vatican but has raised questions about whether the Roman Catholic Church has too small a pool of capable leaders.

Some American Catholics, on both the left and right, have grumbled as much since the clerical sex abuse crisis erupted last year.

Liberals see a conservative pope who has picked bishops for their loyalty over leadership skills. Conservatives see a church with problems so large that relatively few people can handle them.

O'Malley fits into both arguments.

Staunchly loyal to the Vatican, he also seems uniquely qualified to help the Boston Archdiocese recover from a year of devastating scandals. O'Malley served as bishop of Fall River, Mass., following a major abuse scandal there and then was sent last year to shepherd Palm Beach, where the two previous bishops admitted molesting minors.

Pope John Paul II picked O'Malley as Boston's next archbishop Tuesday. Looking at church leaders around the country, Catholic observers say there were few other choices.

Editor Tom Roberts of National Catholic Reporter, a newsweekly which has unearthed sex abuse scandals since 1985, believes the past year "has pointed out how lacking in leadership the bishops' conference is."

The Rev. Richard McBrien, an outspoken University of Notre Dame theologian, agrees. "There is little or no leadership talent in the hierarchy today," he says.

Roberts and McBrien are liberals who often goad the bishops, but conservatives are worried, too.

"When I look around at the current bishops and the ones I'd like to see promoted, I don't come up with too many names," admits Philip Lawler of the Catholic World News Internet service.

Russell Shaw, a longtime spokesman for the U.S. bishops' conference, says he came up with "six, eight or, generously, 10" people among the 279 active bishops qualified to handle Boston.

But, Shaw says, that doesn't mean the talent pool is shallower than a decade or a generation ago. "The problems are much larger and more intractable," he says, adding that the hierarchy brought this situation upon itself through mishandling abuse cases in years past.

Deal Hudson, the conservative editor of Crisis magazine, sees a "shortage of bishops with both the theological and people skills that are necessary to dig out from a situation rife with anger, with division and with, frankly, depression."

Some might theorize that the steadily shrinking number of priests inevitably means fewer well-qualified bishops, but Catholic University sociologist Dean Hoge doubts that.

Hoge says his own research indicates that if celibacy became optional there would be four times as many priesthood candidates and seminaries would be full once again. But he doesn't think that affects the hierarchy.

"Who becomes a bishop is not necessarily a matter of talent. Church politics is involved," he says.

In McBrien's view, John Paul and his advisers have severely limited the field, naming only bishops "known for their uncritical loyalty to the Holy See and their complete predictability."

"Is there a shortage of talent in the U.S. priesthood?" McBrien asks. "Absolutely not."

Peter Steinfels, author of the forthcoming book "A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America," agrees that Rome's emphasis on making safe appointments has "eliminated all sorts of people who have shown initiative and independence of mind."

He also thinks O'Malley's case raises a new danger — choosing bishops just on their ability to deal with the sex abuse crisis, without regard to other long-term problems.

Hudson doesn't see papal loyalty as a problem but says too many bishops are secretive and inaccessible. They're "hard to get on the phone and hard to get straight answers from," he says. "That has got to end."

His preference? "Forthright, plainspoken priests who are willing to teach the faith without compromise but with joy and excitement." Someone, Hudson says, like O'Malley.