Metro

Amid new sex abuse scandal, O’Malley issues warning to church

Cardinal Sean O'Malley.
John Tlumacki/Globe staff/file 2017
Cardinal Sean O'Malley.

Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley said Tuesday he was “deeply troubled” by the allegations of sexual abuse by one of the most respected US cardinals, Theodore McCarrick — and laid out steps the Roman Catholic Church needs to take to address its continuing clergy sex abuse problems.

McCarrick’s “alleged actions, when committed by any person, are morally unacceptable and incompatible with the role of a priest, bishop or cardinal,” O’Malley said in a statement, warning that the church could lose its “already weakened moral authority” if it doesn’t make changes.

McCarrick was once one of the architects of the church’s policy on sexual abuse. The allegations against him have rocked Catholics.

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The Vatican has suspended him after finding he had been credibly accused of sexually abusing a teenager decades ago. Four more complaints have also surfaced. The scandal comes at a time of Catholic sex abuse crises in Chile and Honduras, and church-watchers say Pope Francis, who is deciding McCarrick’s punishment, is at a critical juncture, The Washington Post reported Sunday.

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O’Malley said the allegations against McCarrick highlighted a “major gap” in the church’s policies on sexual conduct and sexual abuse.

“While the Church in the United States has adopted a zero tolerance policy regarding the sexual abuse of minors by priests we must have clearer procedures for cases involving bishops. Transparent and consistent protocols are needed to provide justice for the victims and to adequately respond to the legitimate indignation of the community,” he said.

O’Malley’s statement drew a mixed response from the leader of an abuse survivor’s group and two lawyers who have represented sex abuse victims.

“It was a little qualified, but the message was still clear that this was a major problem,” said Eric MacLeish, a Cambridge attorney who has represented hundreds of victims in church sex abuse cases,

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O’Malley’s statement “was exactly what needed to be said,” he said.

MacLeish said McCarrick has acted as a “leading reform advocate on sexual abuse” in the church in the past. The accusations against McCarrick, said MacLeish, are “really disturbing.”

O’Malley, who was reappointed as the head of a Vatican commission on child sex abuse in February, has once again been put in the position of “being the fix-it guy when it comes to sex abuse” in the church, said Mac-Leish.

Phil Saviano, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse by a priest in Worcester and founder of the New England chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, commended O’Malley for speaking out.

But he added that the cardinal’s statement “doesn’t negate the fact that these things have been going on for eons.” He agreed with O’Malley that there was a “major gap” in church policies regarding sexual abuse.

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He said he was not surprised by the McCarrick allegations.

“It’s not unreasonable to think that some of the cardinals had similar psychological problems we’ve seen in many priests around the world,” he said.

Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney who said he has worked on more than 2,000 church sex abuse cases, said O’Malley’s statement lacked substance.

“Actions speak louder than words,” he said.

The church as a whole, he said, has failed to implement meaningful programs to protect children from sexual abuse and help vicitms heal.

In his statement, O’Malley called for, first, a “fair and rapid adjudication of these accusations; second, an assessment of the adequacy of our standards and policies in the Church at every level, and especially in the case of bishops; and third, communicating more clearly to the Catholic faithful and to all victims the process for reporting allegations against bishops and cardinals.”

He warned that if the church doesn’t take steps to address the problem, it could “threaten and endanger the already weakened moral authority of the Church and can destroy the trust required for the Church to minister to Catholics and have a meaningful role in the wider civil society.”

O’Malley also responded to a New York City priest who, the Post reported, said he wrote a letter to O’Malley in 2015, citing “a form of sexual abuse/harassment/intimidation or maybe simply high-jinks as practiced by Theodore Cardinal McCarrick with his seminarians and perhaps other young men” in New Jersey.

O’Malley’s secretary wrote the priest back, saying O’Malley’s job, as president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, was to evaluate policies and procedures and make recommendations, not to review individual cases, the Post reported.

O’Malley reiterated that position Tuesday.

Martin Finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com. Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__Mcdonald.