Pope Francis heaped praise this week on the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, commending the cardinal for his work on the Church’s global efforts to address clerical sexual abuse, and crediting him with launching the pope’s global commission on the subject.
The praise came as O’Malley, 77, draws near to retirement as Boston’s archbishop. It might prove to be the final word from the pontiff on a relationship in which O’Malley, who frequently lent credibility to the pope’s efforts on sexual abuse reform, was eventually sidelined from one of the most significant papal initiatives on the subject.
Given the history of that relationship, the pope’s spontaneous praise for O’Malley comes as a surprise to many Vatican-watchers. And it has led some to wonder whether the cardinal is close to being retired, or whether the praise could mean that Francis — facing new criticisms of mishandling sexual misconduct allegations — might again need O’Malley’s help, as he has needed it in the past.
“I would like to pay tribute to a man who began to speak about this with courage, even though he was a thorn in the side of the organization, long before the organization was created on this subject, and that is Cardinal O’Malley. It fell to him to settle the matter in Boston and it was not easy,” Pope Francis said unprompted in a radio interview this week.
“The Commission for the Protection of Minors, which was Cardinal O’Malley’s invention, is now functioning,” Pope Francis added.
In fact, much of O’Malley’s episcopal career has been tied up with handling clerical sexual abuse issues. The cardinal was appointed in1992 to head the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts. There, he had to lead the diocese as it faced the scandal of a laicized priest who eventually admitted to molesting at least 100 children, and who was in the 1960s frequently reassigned by the Fall River diocese amid complaints, and even an arrest, stemming from his serial sexual abuse of minors.
In 2002, O’Malley was sent to lead the Palm Beach diocese in Florida while it addressed an abuse scandal, but the very next year was transferred to the Archdiocese of Boston, which was then in the throes of the Spotlight scandal and the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law.
O’Malley received generally high marks from Church-watchers for his efforts to address the scandal of clerical abuse, and became known as a central figure in ecclesiastical leadership on the issue.
From early in Pope Francis’ pontificate, the pope has relied on O’Malley’s reputation for addressing the sexual abuse scandal — appointing the cardinal in late 2013 to head his policy commission on clerical abuse, the commission for which he has now credited O’Malley with conceptualizing.
Critics say Francis leaned on O’Malley’s reputation to bolster his own flagging credibility on clerical sexual abuse, and from its beginning the commission was framed by some analysts as a P.R. move meant to deflect criticism of the pope’s approach to clerical abuse victims. For his part, though, O’Malley attributed the commission to the pope’s concern for a pastoral response to sexual abuse.
After its launch, even some of its members said the commission lacked teeth, but O’Malley seemed to remain supportive. After one member, a victim of clerical sexual abuse, was suspended, and then both he and another member resigned in 2017, O’Malley cast a positive outlook on the commission, its goals, and the pope’s efforts on clerical abuse and misconduct.
Behind closed Vatican doors, though, O’Malley pushed in 2017 for changes to Francis’ response to priests accused of misconduct, urging the pope to stop a practice of reinstating priests dismissed from ministry or the clerical state. The cardinal also reportedly commiserated with victims aggrieved by the pope’s approach to abuse, including those who resigned from the panel, while at the same time making efforts to deflect blame from Francis to institutional dysfunction.
In January 2018, O’Malley publicly rebuked Pope Francis. But while the rebuke made global headlines, they only told half the story. The cardinal’s statement also contained several paragraphs aimed at defending the character and good intentions of the pontiff.
The pope was on a pastoral visit to South America, with a stop in Santiago de Chile. A journalist asked him about Bishop Juan Barros — a bishop the pope had appointed to the Chilean diocese of Osorno, despite allegations that he enabled, witnessed, and covered up sexual abuse by the notorious predator and Chilean priest Fernando Karadima.
Francis told the journalist that the accusations against Barros were “all calumny,” and lacking proof, doubling down on his insistence that the allegations were politically motivated fabrications.
“The day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, I’ll speak,” the pope said, in remarks which set off protests across Chile.
“It is understandable that Pope Francis’ statements yesterday in Santiago, Chile, were a source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy or any other perpetrator. Words that convey the message ‘if you cannot prove your claims then you will not be believed’ abandon those who have suffered reprehensible criminal violations of their human dignity and relegate survivors to discredited exile,” the cardinal wrote.
At the same time, he defended the pope’s motivations:
“Not having been personally involved in the cases that were the subject of yesterday’s interview I cannot address why the Holy Father chose the particular words he used at that time. What I do know, however, is that Pope Francis fully recognizes the egregious failures of the Church and its clergy who abused children and the devastating impact those crimes have had on survivors and their loved ones.”
“The Pope’s statements that there is no place in the life of the Church for those who would abuse children and that we must adhere to zero tolerance for these crimes are genuine and they are his commitment,” O’Malley added.
The next month, O’Malley was silent when the Associated Press reported that in 2015, he had been given a letter from an abuse victim detailing the allegation that Barros had been complicit in abuse.
The AP report said that O’Malley told the victim he had hand delivered the letter — a kind of proof of the allegations against Barros — to Pope Francis.
The victim’s account suggested negligence, and even duplicity, on the part of the pontiff. That charge which might have been confirmed if O’Malley had confirmed that he handed the letter to Pope Francis directly.
But the cardinal offered no comment, allowing for the possibility that Pope Francis had in fact been ignorant of the victim’s direct charges against Barros. The account still remains unresolved.
Despite O’Malley’s years of support for the pope’s efforts on clerical abuse, and a move that might have saved the pope from serious charges of dishonesty and cover-up, O’Malley was not called to assist Pope Francis when the pontiff began in 2018 in developing a global response to the Theodore McCarrick scandal.
In fact, when Pope Francis called for a February 2019 global summit on abuse policy, he tapped another American, Cardinal Blase Cupich, to help organize the affair, even though the summit itself was O’Malley’s idea in the first place.
O’Malley attended the summit, but it was Cupich who played a key role. And it was also Cupich, not O’Malley, who introduced in November 2018 the outline for a plan to investigate bishops that eventually was promulgated as Vos estis lux mundi, the centerpiece of Francis’ efforts to address episcopal misconduct. Meanwhile, the trial process for bishops devised by O’Malley and the abuse commission, Come una madre, remains unused, and seems consigned to the dustbin.
It is clear, and Vatican-watchers made note of it, that by the time the pope was addressing the McCarrick scandal, O’Malley’s stock with the pontiff had diminished.
Whether that was because O’Malley had faced criticism for his office’s flubbed response to a 2015 letter warning the Church about McCarrick, or because O’Malley pushed internally at the Vatican for change, or because of residual tension from the Barros affair, is uncertain.
But in light of the coolness between the men, the pope’s sua sponte praise of O’Malley this week came as a surprise. It could be a sign that Francis intends soon to accept O’Malley’s resignation — the pontiff heaped praise on Cardinal Donald Wuerl at the same time he accepted the cardinal’s resignation in 2018.
It could also be that the pope is just aiming to mend fences.
Or it might be that, as he faces new criticism for his handling of several South American bishops accused of serious sexual misconduct, Pope Francis again perceives a need for the public support of a cardinal with a still-mostly-strong reputation on addressing clerical sexual abuse.
O’Malley himself likely has some sense of the pope’s motivation. And as the abuse trial of one Argentine bishop gets underway, and Theodore McCarrick prepares to face criminal charges in Massachusetts, the reason for the pope’s unexpected praise of O’Malley may soon become apparent.