Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, in an unprecedented effort to raise his profile on Beacon Hill, is inviting more than 100 state lawmakers to a breakfast next week in what one of his aides described as “relationship building.”
O’Malley, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston, will meet with lawmakers Oct. 17 for an “informal continental breakfast” at the Union Club, according to an invitation sent to members who represent the 144 cities and towns within the archdiocese. Legislators “will be provided an overview of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the Archdiocesan Catholic Schools Office, and the key social service programs provided by Catholic Charities and related organizations.”
In the past, Boston’s archbishops wielded great personal influence at the State House, using the church’s moral authority to speak out on hot-button issues such as women’s suffrage, birth control, abortion, and the death penalty.
The church does not command the presence on Beacon Hill that it did years ago, when it played a much more prominent role in society. Some lawmakers remain angry at what they viewed as overly aggressive lobbying techniques that church lobbyists and some priests used in opposing same-sex marriage.
O’Malley, installed in the aftermath of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, has been more focused on handling the church’s own problems than he has been on politics. In addition to addressing fallout from the abuse scandal, he has been trying to reverse a decades-long decline in Mass attendance and church participation.
When he has tried to exert influence on political issues, it has usually been from a distance, writing a joint statement with other Catholic bishops opposing gay marriage, for example, or securing millions of dollars to underwrite a successful, come-from-behind campaign to defeat a ballot question on assisted suicide last year.
Terrence C. Donilon, a spokesman for the archdiocese, confirmed that this will be O’Malley’s first meeting with a large group of lawmakers since being named archbishop in 2003.
Donilon said the meeting was not meant to focus on any particular issue. Rather, he said, the archdiocese hopes to better acquaint lawmakers with the breadth of its work, which includes educating some 42,000 students in parochial schools, serving the needy through Catholic Charities and other groups, and working on social justice issues.
“We want them to get to know us better so they understand the broader value of the church in the community,” Donilon said. “If the Catholic Church went away tomorrow, there would be millions upon millions of dollars put on the backs of cities and towns in Massachusetts.”
Donilon said the cardinal has met with Governor Deval Patrick and legislative leaders, and regularly speaks with Boston’s mayor, Thomas M. Menino.
But he said the church has not prioritized engaging “on a more proactive basis with the Legislature and with public officials in general.” He added that, as a cardinal, O’Malley has a rigorous schedule, so it can be hard to find time to do that.
“We’ve heard from them that they don’t know us, and honestly, they’re correct — they probably don’t know us,” he said.
Donilon also said two other Massachusetts prelates, Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell of Springfield and Bishop Robert J. McManus of Worcester, have held similar get-togethers with rank-and-file lawmakers within the last couple of years.
The meeting comes as State House power brokers have signaled a willingness to pursue legislation extending the statute of limitations in civil sexual abuse cases. Catholic officials have previously opposed the legislation, which would allow alleged victims to bring cases until they turn 55 years old, regardless of when the alleged abuse occurred. A separate bill would open a one-year window for those over 55 to report allegations.
But O’Malley’s invitation focused on common ground, offering an opportunity for legislators and the cardinal to discuss “shared priorities as we work for the good of our local communities.”
Alexis Tkachuk, chief of staff for the House Judiciary Committee, said its chairman, Represenative Eugene O’Flaherty, has never had a conversation with O’Malley on the statute of limitations legislation, which is in his committee’s domain, or on any other issue. The Massachusetts Catholic Conference, which represents the state’s bishops, has testified on it.
Tkachuk said O’Malley’s breakfast appears to follow a familiar template on Beacon Hill. Organizations and lobbying groups host “lobby days” in order to get to know lawmakers and describe the group’s mission and main issues of interest. The meetings typically include light refreshments and offer attendees packets of information on the group’s work and legislative concerns.
“Generally, the lobby days are very folksy meet-and-greets,” Tkachuk said. “They don’t tend to highlight controversial issues, because they want people to see their organization as something worthwhile to work with over the next two years.”
She said some are held in the middle of the Great Hall at the State House, others are held in the members’ lounge; some are open to press, and some are not.
Donilon said next week’s breakfast would be closed to reporters.
“Does the president or the governor let The Boston Globe into their meetings with a group of legislators?” he said. “Would the Boston Globe let us into meetings with their leadership?”