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O’Malley meets with lawmakers

Cardinal Sean O’Malley.

AP File

Cardinal Sean O’Malley.

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley hosted some 60 state lawmakers at a breakfast meeting on Thursday that was meant to help rebuild his church’s rapport with the Legislature.

The meeting, which was held at the private Union Club on Beacon Hill and was closed to the press, was the first in which the cardinal has met with a large group of legislators since he became the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston in 2003.

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O’Malley and his staff offered a broad overview of the archdiocese and its work, according to those who attended, highlighting the church’s youth programs, assistance to immigrants, parochial schools, and care for the poor in 144 cities and towns in Eastern Massachusetts.

Hot-button social issues such as contraception, abortion, and gay marriage did not come up, according to several legislators who attended, nor did pending legislation on extending the statute of limitations for abuse, which the Catholic church has opposed.

“There was no ask in this” meeting, said Representative Byron Rushing, a Democrat who represents the South End. “My takeaway is they are going to try to get back to being as active as they used to be.”

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The Catholic Church was once a powerful lobbying force in the Legislature, but its potency ebbed over the last several decades, as Mass attendance steadily dropped. The sexual abuse crisis in 2002 dramatically diminished the church’s remaining strength. Since then, the tactics that some priests and other church representatives used during debates over gay marriage set off a backlash among some lawmakers, particularly Catholics who felt punished for supporting same-sex marriage.

Representative Jeffrey Sanchez, a Democrat from Jamaica Plain, said that as an active Catholic and a lawmaker for a decade, he has been acutely conscious of all that history, and he found it heartening to see O’Malley trying to reach out.

“This particular cardinal is very well respected amongst many people of different faith and backgrounds,” he said. “So it was nice to see him trying to bring us all together to generally talk about who the Catholic church is, and what the archdiocese is.”

Rushing said O’Malley devoted a great deal of time to speaking about immigration, and discussed his work with Hispanic immigrants in Washington, D.C., before he became a bishop. The US Catholic church advocates reforming US immigration policy and offering a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

“It means they want to talk about everything,” Rushing said.

The cardinal, in a statement, called the meeting a good first step toward improving communication with lawmakers on Beacon Hill.

“It is my hope that today’s dialogue will strengthen the Church’s collaborative relationship with the citizens of the Commonwealth,” he said.

Among those who spoke was James F. Driscoll, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, which lobbies for the bishops of the four Roman Catholic dioceses in Massachusetts: Boston, Fall River, Springfield, and Worcester. But Driscoll talked only briefly, and he was followed by other church leaders.

Terrence C. Donilon, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said some lawmakers may not know all the programs that the archdiocese operates in their districts, and the meeting was an attempt to educate the lawmakers about the wide number of initiatives the archdiocese is involved in.

“We share many common concerns about the poor, about education,’’ Donilon said. “We thought it was a good chance to open some dialogue so we can get to know each other better.’’

Donilon said O’Malley wanted to hold such a meeting earlier, but has been focusing on rebuilding and reshaping the archdiocese in the wake of the priest sex abuse scandal.

“We see the immense dysfunction going on in Washington,” he said. “It was to show what we do in those 144 cities and towns.’’

John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@
globe.com
. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.
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