Cardinal Sean O’Malley issued a strongly worded statement Saturday reproaching Pope Francis for the pontiff’s accusations in Chile last week that victims of a pedophile priest in that country were slandering a bishop they say covered up the case.
“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,” O’Malley said.
Local abuse victims and advocates, however, said that it is action, not talk, that is important, and the cardinal’s words did not go far enough.
“People in the survivor community are not looking for prayers and words of sympathy,” said Phil Saviano, an abuse victim who founded the New England chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “We’re looking for them to actually do something.”
The pope sparked outrage Thursday during his visit to Chile, which was supposed to help heal the wounds of a sex abuse scandal there.
But Francis closed his visit by saying that until he sees proof that Bishop Juan Barros was complicit in covering up the sex crimes of the Rev. Fernando Karadima, the accusations against Barros are “all calumny.”
‘‘The day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, I’ll speak,’’ Francis said. ‘‘There is not one shred of proof against him. It’s all calumny. Is that clear?’’
The Vatican had previously deemed the accusers credible enough to sentence Karadima to a lifetime of “penance and prayer” for his crimes in 2011. A Chilean judge also noted that while she had to drop criminal charges against Karadima because too much time had passed, there was no lack of proof that he was guilty.
O’Malley, who is the pope’s top adviser on clerical sex abuse, said he did not know why Francis chose the words he did.
“It is understandable that Pope Francis’ statements . . . were a source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy or any other perpetrator,” O’Malley said in his statement.
O’Malley said that despite the comments, he knew from accompanying Francis to many meetings with survivors that the pope “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 promise that there is no place in the church for those who would abuse children is genuine, O’Malley said.
Thomas Groome, a professor of theology and religious education at Boston College and director of the school’s Church in the 21st Century Center, said that while conservative cardinals have criticized the more progressive pope in the past, it was unusual for a cardinal like O’Malley, who headed Francis’s much-touted committee for the protection of minors until it was allowed to expire last month, to speak out.
“Cardinal O’Malley is one of Pope Francis’s close advisers, and certainly a part of his kitchen cabinet,” said Groome, who wrote the book “What Makes Us Catholic.”
“So in that sense, I think it is both honest and somewhat courageous of Cardinal O’Malley to issue the statement that he did.”
Parishioners walking into a late afternoon Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston’s South End said O’Malley had done a good job standing up for victims.
“God love him, he is so committed to undoing the hurt of victims of sexual abuse,” said Kelly Thatcher, a parishioner at the cathedral since 1986.
But for some who spoke out during the sex abuse scandal here in Massachusetts, the cardinal’s statement fell short because it lacked any concrete call to action.
“Pope Francis’s words were harmful, and Cardinal O’Malley should not equivocate in his statements,” said Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney who represented hundreds of victims.
“Once again, Cardinal O’Malley is trying to play both sides against the middle, by attempting to qualify Pope Francis’s statements, yet appear to try and support victims. Plain and simple: Pope Francis’s words were a dagger in the heart to many victims.”
Abuse survivor Jim Scanlan said he questioned the integrity of O’Malley’s comments.
“It’s how I feel about this pope: He says a lot of good things, but he doesn’t back them up,” said Scanlan.
On the same day O’Malley made the statement, Scanlan said he spoke with another survivor who told Scanlan that he was recently deposed about his abuse, and was questioned aggressively about every detail.
“I’d like to see the church, instead of fighting victims who come forward, if they’re civilly suing, to settle with them,” said Scanlan.
“It’s not about what [O’Malley] said today, it’s what they have been doing, and what they will be doing, every day, that none of us know about.”
Saviano said he’d like to see worldwide reform in how the church handles issues of sexual abuse. The church should enforce mandated reporting everywhere in the world, he said, to make sure that any official who knows of abuse turns it over to civil authorities.
He’d like to see the church support changing statute of limitations laws, which set a time limit on how long abuse victims have to come forward and see their abusers prosecuted, to extend the amount of time they have to speak out.
And, Saviano said, church leaders should be meeting more regularly with leaders of the movement fighting abuse.
“The time for prayers is over,” said Saviano. “We need some concrete action.”