VATICAN CITY – Pope John Paul II named Bishop Sean Patrick O'Malley (search) to lead the Boston Archdiocese (search) Tuesday, sending a man known as a healer into the epicenter of the clerical sex abuse crisis in the U.S. church. O'Malley set a humble tone as he looked at the job ahead of him.
"The path has never been easy but today it seems overwhelming," he said at a news conference. "Still, I feel privileged to be called."
O'Malley, 59, succeeds Cardinal Bernard Law (search), who resigned in December amid public outrage that made it impossible for him to do his job. Waves of molestation cases exposed a Roman Catholic hierarchy that sought to shield abusive priests rather than kick them out of parishes.
About 500 lawsuits have been filed against the archdiocese, with settlement negotiations so far failing to resolve them.
O'Malley, who won praise for cracking down on sex abuse in two other assignments hit by scandal -- Fall River, Mass., and Palm Beach, Fla. -- renewed the promise to settle the lawsuits.
Even if it's not a legal obligation, he said, there remains a moral obligation: "We must step up to the plate. People's lives are more important than money."
In some circles, O'Malley is considered a natural for the post because his two prior assignments centered on helping dioceses where stamping out clergy sexual abuse had been his top order of business. Still, it was a bit of a surprise since he had only moved to the Palm Beach Diocese in October.
The Vatican on Tuesday also named his successor in Palm Beach, Bishop Gerald Barbarito (search), currently bishop of Ogdensburg, N.Y.
Lawyers for victims praised O'Malley for his handling of clergy sex abuse issues, although other victims' groups urged caution.
Among his first duties was a planned afternoon meeting planned with victims before his expected return later in the day to Palm Beach, according to a schedule released by the archdiocese.
O'Malley was sent in to Fall River to clean up a crisis in the early 1990s when the Rev. James Porter was accused of molesting children. Porter ultimately pleaded guilty to molesting 28 children and was sentenced to 18 to 20 years in prison.
The diocese paid for treatment and medication for Porter's victims.
"There could never be a better person in the country to have this job and to try to bring about real healing in the Archdiocese of Boston," said attorney Roderick MacLeish, who represented 101 of Porter's victims and is also one of the lead lawyers for hundreds of plaintiffs with cases against the archdiocese.
The lay victims group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (search) said it welcomed O'Malley and would work with him, but stressed that "no one person can magically undo the horrific pain so many in this archdiocese feel."
"He did lead the Fall River diocese in the aftermath of serial predator priest James Porter. But one case does not make a track record," said Ann Hagen Webb, New England coordinator of the group.
One of Porter's victims said he hadn't been satisfied with his dealings with O'Malley.
"He's slick. He's good public relations. But as far as deep inside, he's not really going to solve the problem," said Frank Fitzpatrick. "The reason is, he's just there to quiet things down."
In Palm Beach, where two prior bishops admitted they were guilty of sexual abuse, O'Malley immediately apologized to victims and took immediate steps to crack down on abuse.
In Boston, however, he will likely find his greatest challenge.
Law resigned last year following revelations he allowed priests accused of molestation to keep serving. The former archbishop was widely criticized for his handling of the scandal that ensnared dozens of priests and eventually spread to dioceses around the country.
Bishop Richard Lennon has been acting as the interim leader of the archdiocese, which counts 2.1 million Catholics.
The Rev. Richard McBrien, a liberal theologian at the University of Notre Dame, said despite all the kudos O'Malley has won for his response to sex abuse, he is still a conservative priest who would be "uncritically loyal to the Holy See and would not veer one millimeter from its policies and teachings on anything."
When he resigned in December, Law became the highest-ranking Church figure to be brought down by the scandal. He is now a resident chaplain at the Sisters of Mercy of Alma convent in Clinton, Md.