(February 21, 2019) Pope Francis and Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston clash in how to handle the Catholic church’s sex abuse crisis. While the pope has promised the world that he will move quickly to stop sex abuse by clergy and remove wayward priests, the pontiff’s actions have led Cardinal O’Malley and others to ponder whether the church’s leader will follow through on those promises.
Though Cardinal O’Malley stops well short of criticizing his “superior,” he is clearly disappointed that Pope Francis’ latest actions’ fail to fulfill his promises to timely identify and remove predatory priests and prevent further sex abuse crimes. Cardinal O’Malley is one of the few heroes in the tragic story of runaway sex abuse and unconscionable coverups that plague the Catholic church. He has already toiled for years trying to help heal several dioceses which nearly imploded as a result of his predecessor’s shortcomings.
The Healer – A Hero of our Time
Cardinal O’Malley made his name as a healer when several abuse scandals struck the Catholic church in the 1990s. As bishop of Fall River, Mass., and then of Palm Beach, Fla., he dealt with abuse cases that implicated his predecessors. He reached settlements and won the trust of many victims, which was no small feat given their history. Cardinal O’Malley fought back tears when he spoke in public of the harms done to children.
In 2003, church leaders made him archbishop of Boston to tackle the biggest sex abuse crisis they’d ever seen. That scandal included an egregious coverup of clerical sex abuse that was made legend in the film “The Spotlight,” which focused on the Boston Globe reporters who broke the story. Besides coming clean on the church’s crimes against children, Cardinal O’Malley sold the palatial official residence where he was stationed and used that money to pay sex abuse victims. He moved into a small apartment rectory.
Further Christlike, he was active in the Catholic church’s poverty relief work around the Western hemisphere, which is how he met Cardinal Mario Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis.
Their relationship was mutually beneficial and respectful for decades, but the way the pope’s latest actions have clashed with his previous promises has changed things for Cardinal O’Malley.
The cardinal first persuaded the pope to let him lead an advisory panel to study the problem and work on a solution. In 2015, the panel recommended a special tribunal to try bishops who ignore or cover up abuse. The panel eventually proposed that sex abuse allegations should involve outside investigators, not just priests, and that Vatican files on abuse should be shared with victims and civil authorities. The pope at first agreed with the panel, but the next year he changed his mind. Victims’ representatives then resigned from the panel for what they said was Vatican inaction.
So the panel shifted focus to organizing academic conferences, but the pope then reshuffled the panel’s membership. “Mistakes were made in appointments,” he said. His use of the passive voice did not bode well for the veracity of his statement. The passive voice is a rhetorical device often used to deflect the culpability of the speaker, or to hide something more than tangentially relevant to the subject at hand. The pope also said that the commission had not been honest with him.
One of the victims’ advocates who had quit the panel said Cardinal O’Malley told her: “I can’t understand why he would have said that.”
Still, Cardinal O’Malley did not criticize the pope, at least not directly. But then on a trip to Chile in January 2018, the pope defended a local bishop accused of covering up sex abuse, claiming that the allegations against him were “calumny” without proof.
Cardinal O’Malley then issued a public statement critical of the pope: “It is understandable that Pope Francis’ statements yesterday. . . were a source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse. Words that convey the message, ‘If you cannot prove your claims then you will not be believed,’ abandon those who have suffered.”
The pope has also remained close to Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Washington, who is currently awaiting the results of a church trial on multiple counts of sex abuse and other misconduct. A former Vatican diplomat accused the pope of ignoring earlier reports of sexual misconduct with adults by McCarrick, who has said he is innocent of one of the charges against him. The pope has said he would not authorize a full-fledged investigation into the McCarrick scandal.
The pope stunned Cardinal O’Malley and other U.S. priests during their visit to the Vatican last summer when he suggested that they cancel their annual national assembly planned for November 2018 where they planned to discuss anti-abuse proposals. The Americans politely declined to cancel their assembly.
And then the pope announced a February 2019 summit on sex abuse that excluded the most competent and compassionate victims’ advocate in the country: Cardinal O’Malley.
“We have to deflate expectations,” the pope told reporters.