ROME — Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley said on Monday that a prior climate of denial among Catholic cardinals on the need for reform with regard to the church’s child sexual abuse scandals has been largely driven underground.
O’Malley also said that a lack of accountability for bishops who fail to make “zero tolerance” policies stick has damaged the church’s credibility, and vowed that he will present proposals for new accountability mechanisms to the pope within two months’ time.
O’Malley spoke Monday in an exclusive interview with the Globe during a Rome event to present an expanded antiabuse initiative at the Jesuit-run Gregorian University.
O’Malley was asked by Pope Francis to make a presentation to all the cardinals of the world on Friday about the activities of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, a body created last year to lead the charge for reform on the child sexual abuse scandals.
The Boston prelate said that the pope’s leadership has set a new tone in terms of the effort to combat abuse.
“The fact that the Holy Father was willing to write a letter to all the bishops’ conferences calling on them to meet with victims is extremely important,” he said, referring to a recent missive from Francis instructing bishops to arrange encounters with abuse survivors.
“There’s great concern [among cardinals] and a realization the church has to do something, but a lot of people don’t know what to do,” he said. “They’re open to listening.”
At the same time, he acknowledged that a huge gap remains in the church’s response, especially accountability for bishops.
“The job of the commission is to make recommendations for best practices, procedures, and policies to address these various problems,” O’Malley said. “One that we’re most concerned about is accountability, because right now there’s really nothing in place.”
On that front, O’Malley said he hopes to have a “pretty finished product” in terms of a new accountability system, including a tribunal located within the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a powerful agency responsible for monitoring fidelity to the Catholic doctrine, to present to the pope within two months.
Going forward, O’Malley told the Globe that it is important for bishops all over the Catholic world, not just in North America and Europe where clerical abuse scandals have already exploded, to adopt strong antiabuse policies.
“We need to work on those guidelines and get people committed,” he said. “Our commission will do some of that, particularly with developing countries that really haven’t done anything because they’re so under-resourced. We’re going to go and offer to help them.”
Adopting such policies, he said, is the beginning rather than the end of the effort to prevent clerical abuse.
“After you get the policies in place, then you need a massive education and training program,” O’Malley said.
“You also need some sort of mechanism to evaluate compliance. We need that to be installed centrally in the church, and we also need a procedure for accountability, [what to do] when a superior or a bishop drops the ball or neglects to implement these things,” he said.
O’Malley said the Commission for the Protection of Minors, which he leads, is working on the accountability issue.
“Right now, bishops are answerable to the pope, [so] things drag on and on,” he said. “If there were defined procedures and tribunals to deal with these problems, it would be different.”
O’Malley said that having a system in which sanctions could be assigned to bishops who fail to uphold the rules on sex abuse would benefit everyone.
“First of all, the bishop would be able to defend himself,” he said.
“Then you’d have a decision, and everyone might not agree with it, but it would be clear that the church has dealt with this, it’s been looked at, and a decision was made. This is what we’re working on,” O’Malley said.
John L. Allen Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.