BOSTON — Charged with cleaning up the mess of the clergy sex abuse scandal, Boston Archbishop Sean O'Malley took a low-key approach. He asked to be called "Archbishop Sean" and shunned many of the trappings that go with his rank, quickly winning over many parishioners.
A little over a year later, things have changed. Whether it's deserved or not, some Boston-area Roman Catholics now are calling O'Malley "The Iceman" as he pushes ahead with plans to close almost a quarter of the parishes in the nation's fourth-largest archdiocese.
"My parish was my safe place, which is now being stolen from me at the hands of Archbishop O'Malley. Suffice it to say, I don't like the man," said Jeannine Driscoll of St. Anselm's in Sudbury, where parishioners began a prayer vigil and sit-in in September, days before the archdiocese was scheduled to close the church.
O'Malley announced the 82 church closures in May, after months of trying to prepare parishioners for the need to downsize. The closings were necessary, he said, because of a long, steady decline in Mass attendance, a shortage of priests and deteriorating church buildings that would cost more than $100 million to repair.
He admitted the clergy sex abuse crisis had exacerbated the problems but insisted the churches were not being closed to raise money for a $90 million settlement of more than 500 sex abuse lawsuits.
"I am profoundly aware of the emotion the announcement of the closing of a parish evokes," O'Malley said at the time. "I wish there was some way that all of these wonderful houses of life and prayer could remain open and alive and full. But there is not."
Ever since the list of parishes was released, O'Malley has been bombarded with criticism.
Some say he picked churches with pastors who were considered rebellious or those with active chapters of the lay reform group Voice of the Faithful. Others accused him of picking churches in wealthy suburbs, where high real estate values would bring a good price for church property.
Parishioners launched petition drives, letter-writing campaigns and demonstrations to try and change O'Malley's mind.
In August, parishioners at St. Albert the Great in Weymouth refused to leave after the final Mass was celebrated at the 54-year-old parish. Then, they staged a sit-in, working in shifts to make sure people are there at all times. Parishioners at St. Anselm's in Sudbury followed with a similar occupation, and at least three other churches are considering doing the same.
The sit-ins have put O'Malley in the difficult position of either waiting out the parishioners or forcing a confrontation.
O'Malley declined to be interviewed, but his spokesman, the Rev. Christopher Coyne, said the archdiocese does not intend to forcibly evict any of the parishioners and hopes to settle the disputes through mediation.
Coyne also said, however, that O'Malley does not intend to reverse any of the closings, and parishioners have complained bitterly that the archbishop hasn't visited the churches he plans to shut down.
Also in September, O'Malley did go to St. Peter's in South Boston, a Lithuanian-American parish slated to close, but left abruptly after parishioners pleaded with him to reconsider. O'Malley's aide hustled the archbishop out a side door after a heated exchange with a female parishioner reportedly brought him to tears.
O'Malley sent a representative, Kathleen Heck, to several closing parishes, but she too has been "verbally attacked" by angry parishioners, Coyne said.
"Nobody from the archdiocese is going into a situation in a large meeting with a lot of emotion that will turn into a shouting match," Coyne said.
When O'Malley first arrived in Boston in the summer of 2003, he was praised for his down-to-earth style — in contrast to his predecessor, Cardinal Bernard Law, who was criticized for being aloof.
A Capuchin Franciscan friar who wears the order's simple brown robe, O'Malley shunned the opulent mansion where Law lived and moved instead to an apartment behind the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston's South End.
He quickly settled a huge load of sex abuse lawsuits, hoping to move the archdiocese beyond the worst episode in its history. He won near-unanimous praise from parishioners, priests and victims of clergy abuse.
But O'Malley's refusal to budge on the church closings has infuriated those same people.
"I see someone who has difficulty being responsive to the needs of the parishioners," said Mary Akoury, a parishioner at St. Albert's. "He's gone about this the same way his predecessor went about things."
Some believe the criticism has been unfair.
In addition to trying to lead the church out of the sexual abuse crisis, O'Malley was asked to reconfigure the archdiocese to deal with demographic changes and financial problems that had been brewing for years, said Thomas Wangler, a professor of American religious history at Boston College.
Some parishioners admit that they may be taking out their frustration on O'Malley for a situation he did not create.
"I think he is the focus of our anger and our wrath because it is his name at the top," said Lorraine Dray, a parishioner at St. Jeremiah in Framingham, which will shut its doors late this year. "This is a terrible thing he has to do, but that doesn't change the fact that we are the ones who are paying the price for their ineptitude."