Boston Sean Patrick O'Malley begged forgiveness from the victims of clergy sexual abuse Wednesday as he was installed as the new Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston and promised a new start for a community fractured by scandal.
During a ceremony marked by simplicity and humor, O'Malley asked for prayers and help as he tries to rebuild the archdiocese, heal the wounds of victims and restore the confidence of ordinary Catholics.
O'Malley, a Capuchin Franciscan friar, also made it a point to thank "so many good priests struggling to make sense out of it all," a remark that drew sustained applause from the approximately 900 clergymen in the audience at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.
"The whole Catholic community is ashamed and anguished because of the pain and damage inflicted on so many young people and because of our inability or unwillingness to deal with the crime of sexual abuse of minors," O'Malley said in his homily.
"To those victims and to their families, we beg forgiveness and assure them that the Catholic Church is working to create a safe environment for young people."
O'Malley, 59, is the sixth archbishop of Boston, and has one of the best reputations among national Catholic leaders for dealing with abuse-related issues.
He succeeds Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned in December as evidence mounted that church leaders shuffled abusive priests from parish to parish to keep allegations against them secret and spare the church scandal.
More than 500 lawsuits are pending from people who claim they were sexually abused by priests in the past six decades. A report by the state attorney general said it was likely more than 1,000 people were abused by hundreds of priests since 1940.
The installation ceremony at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross was low-key in comparison to the usual pomp and circumstance, in keeping with O'Malley's humble demeanor as a friar and in deference to the victims of abuse.
Gary Bergeron, 41, who said both he and his younger brother were sexually abused by the late Rev. Joseph Birmingham in the 1970s, was one of dozens of alleged victims who were invited to attend the installation ceremony. Some chose to decline the invitation, but Bergeron attended with his parents.
"I think that his message was on target on all aspects," Bergeron said of O'Malley's homily. "Today is the first time I've felt a compassion from a church official in a long, long time."
The ceremony had some light moments, as when O'Malley -- who has had assignments in Florida and the Caribbean -- talked about the "lovely vacation spots" where he has served as bishop.
"My Provincial used to say, 'O'Malley, when you will get a real job?' Well, Brother Paul, does this count?" O'Malley said, prompting laughter from the crowd of 2,500.
Several dozen protesters were stationed outside. It's been a familiar scene outside the cathedral -- where the archbishop traditionally celebrates Mass -- and many returned to remind the church they remain skeptical of its efforts to heal those harmed by decades of abuse.
One sign read: "Different robe, same secrets," a reference to O'Malley's trademark brown robe of the Capuchin order.
John Harris, 45, of Norwood, who says he was abused by the Rev. Paul Shanley, was among those outside the cathedral.
"Inside there, nothing holy is going on," Harris said. "This is damage control. There will be no justice until we see people behind bars."
O'Malley was tapped by the pope in 1992 to clean up the mess left in the Fall River Diocese by serial pedophile priest James Porter. Last October, he was sent to Palm Beach, Fla., where his two immediate predecessors resigned after confessing to molesting children.
In Fall River, O'Malley was praised for reaching out to victims and instituting reforms that included mandatory background checks and abuse-prevention training.