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Archbishop Mansion Sale Carries Weight

December 4, 2003

BOSTON (AP) _ When Cardinal William O’Connell built an opulent archbishop’s mansion on the city’s outskirts in the 1920s, it served notice that impoverished Catholic immigrants had become a force, both religiously and politically.

But in recent years as the church sex abuse scandal widened, the three-story hilltop mansion became a symbol to some of arrogance _ a growing chasm between church hierarchy and the laity. It became, one abuse victim said, ``a haunted house.″

Now, faced with an $85 million bill to settle abuse claims, Archbishop Sean O’Malley has put the mansion up for sale, along with 28 surrounding acres in Brighton, including the land on which O’Connell’s remains are buried. The building and land have been valued from $14 million to $100 million.

``That mansion symbolized an old regime that was removed from the people. It symbolized decades of everything that was wrong,″ said Gary Bergeron, 41, of Lowell, who is one of more than 550 people who settled with the archdiocese over abuse claims.

The mansion was mentioned in many of the records made public as part of the lawsuits; letters were sent to the residence warning of abusive priests, and decisions were made there to shuttle abusive priests to new parishes, the records showed.

Olan R. Horne, 44, of Lowell, who said he was abused by a priest as a boy, attended several meetings at the residence with other victims and Cardinal Bernard Law. The building has an uncomfortable, museum-like quality, with life-sized portraits of past archdiocesan leaders, he said.

``For me, I’ve never been there for a joyous occasion,″ said Horne, who described the building as a ``haunted house″ to victims.

The Italian Renaissance-style mansion had been used as a residence by the last four archbishops, but Law, who resigned last December amid criticism of his handling of the scandal, came under fire for living there even as the archdiocese said it could not afford to pay victims.

O’Malley announced soon after his installation in July that he would not live in the residence. The Capuchin Franciscan friar has taken a vow of poverty, and moved to the rectory behind the Cathedral of the Holy Cross instead.

The Rev. Christopher Coyne, a spokesman for O’Malley, said Thursday the decision to sell the property ``was really the only option for us,″ and not meant as a symbolic gesture. O’Malley had promised that no collection plate money would be used to pay for the record settlement.

But many Catholics say the symbolism is as important as the finances.

``The opulence has become a negative symbol, there’s no question about it,″ said Louisa Dittrich, a spokeswoman for the lay group Voice of the Faithful.

Raymond Flynn, former Boston mayor and former ambassador to the Vatican, said he had deeply mixed emotions about the sale. His parents were poor Irish immigrants who gave generously of their meager resources to the church and were proud of the Brighton campus.

``A certain dignity has to be associated with the Catholic church,″ Flynn said. ``I don’t want us to be somewhere that we’re tucked away. ... I want people to look up to us as something important in society.″

Boston College, a Jesuit university across the street from the archdiocese land, is interested in buying the property.

Stephen Pope, a theology professor there, said the sale is part of the healing process for a church dealing with a crisis that was as much about power as it was about sex.

``Because it’s an abuse of power, the solution has to involve in some way a redirection and a reshaping of the power of the church that embraces humility,″ he said.


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