As rumors swirl, O’Malley’s skills match church’s needs

Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley was photographed in Rome on Tuesday.
Riccardo De Luca/Associated Press
Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley was photographed in Rome on Tuesday.

The process to select a successor to Pope Benedict XVI is beginning amid yet another clergy sex scandal, this one involving the cardinal who, until last month, headed the Catholic Church in Scotland. The precise dimensions of the allegations directed at Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who has acknowledged engaging in inappropriate behavior, aren’t fully known. But the case underscores that the next pope will inherit a church leadership that is suffering from a crisis of confidence, has become alienated from many followers in Europe and the United States, and is looking for a deeper connection with the predominantly Catholic societies of Latin America.

In recent weeks, some prominent Catholics have mentioned the name of Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston as a possible successor to Benedict. O’Malley is assumed to be a long-shot candidate. Nevertheless, the speculation is a tribute to O’Malley’s work in restoring order to the Archdiocese of Boston after the revelation, a decade ago, of its efforts to cover up clergy sex abuse. O’Malley, a Capuchin friar, has a calm, pastoral manner that helped soothe the bitter feelings left by his more forceful predecessor, Bernard Law. O’Malley’s work in re-examining the archdiocese’s procedures for handling allegations against the clergy was recognized by Benedict when he chose the Boston cardinal for the politically sensitive task of examining the Archdiocese of Dublin in the wake of similar allegations there.

Moreover, O’Malley is fluent in Spanish and has long performed outreach to Hispanic Catholics in the United States and Latin America. He even holds a doctorate from the Catholic University of America in Spanish and Portuguese literature.


The 68-year-old O’Malley seems almost embarrassed by the discussion of him as a possible pope, telling reporters in Boston that he “bought a round-trip ticket” to Rome. Arriving at the Vatican for pre-conclave meetings, O’Malley told the National Catholic Reporter that the speculation about him as a potential pope is “surreal.” In the end, the 115 cardinals who are eligible to vote will determine whether O’Malley is a serious contender.

Whatever happens at the conclave, the focus on O’Malley is based on a realistic assessment of the church’s needs. The next pope needs to be able to reach out effectively to Catholics from emerging nations while rebuilding a sense of trust between the Vatican and its European and American followers. After Benedict, a pope who saw himself largely as an enforcer of traditional church teachings, the church’s next leader should be more aware of the need for outreach and understanding between the clergy and laity. It’s a task that appears to suit O’Malley, and he is justified in approaching the conclave with a mixture of humility and trepidation.