Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley on Saturday called on all US dioceses to turn over personnel records to law enforcement when asked, casting the latest revelations of widespread sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy as a shocking and painful catalyst for greater accountability.
Speaking to the Globe in the rectory of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, O’Malley also said that new procedures are urgently needed to address allegations of sexual abuse or negligence by bishops, despite resistance by Vatican bureaucrats who have blocked bishop accountability measures urged by O’Malley and an increasing number of critics.
And although he praised Pope Francis’ willingness to confront the crisis, O’Malley said he dealt the pontiff a dose of “reality therapy” early this year when he criticized Francis’ response to abuse-related allegations in Chile.
O’Malley, wearing his customary brown robe of the Capuchin order of the Franciscans, said he was shocked by a recent string of allegations and revelations of sexual abuse, including a Pennsylvania grand jury report that more than 1,000 children had been molested by 300 priests over 70 years.
“One thing that I’ve come to understand is that there is no quick fix,” O’Malley said in the 40-minute interview Saturday, pausing occasionally to collect his emotions. “I’ve been dealing with this for 26 years as a bishop and in my last three dioceses. I suspect I'll be struggling with it the rest of my life.”
Clergy and colleagues have described O’Malley as devastated and exhausted by the revelations.
“I understand people’s anger, people’s disappointment,” O’Malley said. “Certainly, for all of us, these have been very hard days. I often say, being a Catholic in Boston is a contact sport, and we have gotten a lot of concussions the last couple of weeks.”
In addition to the grand jury report, allegations of sexual misconduct at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton have prompted O’Malley to order an investigation there.
Following the St. John’s allegations, O’Malley canceled a trip this weekend to Ireland, where Pope Francis is visiting a country racked by its own clerical sexual abuse scandal and where O’Malley was scheduled to address the World Meeting of Families.
And last month, the former archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick, resigned from the College of Cardinals following an investigation into allegations he sexually abused minors and seminarians years ago.
O’Malley apologized last week for his staff’s handling of a letter containing allegations against McCarrick that was sent to his office in 2015. The letter was never forwarded to O’Malley.
Both the pope and O’Malley, the pontiff’s leading adviser on sexual abuse issues, have been assailed by critics who say they do not follow up their public apologies with visible, effective procedures to prevent and root out sexual abuse.
“I think his most significant contribution has been in terms of rhetoric,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, codirector of Bishop Accountability, a Massachusetts-based organization that tracks abuse cases. “I think, because of him, the pope does acknowledge the need of holding bishops accountable, but those words haven’t been matched by actual changes.”
O’Malley, in the interview, defended the response and transparency of the Boston Archdiocese, citing a public listing of clergy linked to sexual abuse, although some critics said the list was overdue and incomplete. The cardinal also pointed to advisory boards of lay people who have helped him understand and deal with the crisis since his tenure in Fall River.
Now, he said, dioceses across the country should cooperate with law enforcement in such cases, a move that many church officials have long resisted. O’Malley also predicted that the US bishops will soon announce new guidelines to review and police themselves regarding sexual abuse.
“The Bishops Conference, the leadership, is very focused on plans that I think will be a big help in stepping forward that will involve lay people,” O’Malley said.
Greater cooperation with law enforcement is badly needed, said Steven Krueger, president of Catholic Democrats, a national advocacy group.
“Every US bishop should request state attorneys general, or other pertinent district attorneys, to review the secret personnel files in their archives and issue a comprehensive report on the numbers of victims and names of credibly accused priests and the bishops who oversaw them,” Krueger said.
Prelates have often fought the release of secret records documenting clergy abuse and coverups by bishops, relenting only after years of legal battles. In many dioceses across the country, the full history of abuse has never come to light.
O’Malley’s call for greater cooperation with law enforcement is a significant step forward, said Nicholas Cafardi, dean emeritus of the Duquesne University School of Law, who advised American bishops on the abuse-prevention policy they adopted in 2002.
“This is a big deal,” Cafardi said. “The church is part of civil society and not exempt from civil society.”
O’Malley has been immersed in the crisis since 1992, when he was appointed bishop in Fall River following a major abuse scandal involving the Rev. James Porter.
A decade later, O’Malley spent a short time in Palm Beach, Fla., where two bishops had departed following admissions that they molested boys. And in 2003, O’Malley was installed as Boston’s archbishop to succeed Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned in disgrace after discovery of a decades-long pattern of sexual abuse by clergy members and coverup.
“Like so many Catholics, I came to realize that there had been this asymptomatic, hidden, fatal disease in our church that nobody knew about,” O’Malley said of his introduction to the clerical abuse of minors. “Suddenly, it’s coming to the fore, and you hear about the coverups and the crimes, the terrible abuse. It was very, very painful.”
The damage caused by the crisis is ongoing and significant, O’Malley said.
“I know the mission of the church to announce the gospel, to bring people to Christ, is compromised and even jeopardized unless we embrace this history and deal with it in an effective way,” O’Malley said.
That work does not include asking for the resignation of all the US bishops, as some reformers have advocated, O’Malley said. Although the Chilean bishops offered to resign en masse following the scandal there — five resignations were accepted by the pope — O’Malley said that would be wrong-headed in this country.
“Well, I’d like early retirement,” O’Malley said with a chuckle.
Then, turning serious, he said that a mass resignation “would only retard the response that the Bishops Conference needs.”
“If everybody suddenly became a lame duck, we’re not going to be able to do what needs to be done quickly. People are angry, they’re impatient, they want to see action. And if suddenly everyone is told, ‘Well, you’re just treading water now,’ I think that would be terrible.”
The cardinal, who is president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, the Vatican panel that advises the pope on policy related to clergy abuse, said he was disappointed when vigorous opposition from the Vatican Curia shelved a recommendation by the panel to create a tribunal that would hear sexual abuse cases involving bishops.
“This was the very first thing we dealt with because we felt this was the most important piece, and we realized that the sex abuse crisis was in great part a crisis of leadership,” O’Malley said. “The recommendation was initially accepted, and then there was so much opposition to it that the Holy Father went down another path.”
The cardinal said he had spoken to abuse survivors in the wake of the recent revelations, and that their continuing pain is a source of sorrow for him.
“As painful as this time is for me and for Catholics in general, I know that for many people who are survivors, their lives are upended every time this kind of revelation takes place,” O’Malley said.
In addition, he said, “I also worry about my priests, who are getting older and working harder, and who feel once again under the gun because of these revelations. It is a very challenging time for us.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.