WESTON — Jolted by the latest sexual abuse storm to hit the Roman Catholic Church, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley addressed nearly 300 archdiocesan priests Tuesday in an emotional, closed-door meeting that left some grim-faced clerics shaking their heads as they left.
“It’s a sad day,” said one elderly priest, hurrying to his car after the meeting and waving off questions from a reporter.
The 90-minute meeting at St. Julia’s parish center followed a recent, explosive allegation from a top Vatican diplomat who, in a striking personal attack, said Pope Francis covered up reports of abuse and harassment of seminarians against Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington who resigned from the College of Cardinals last month.
O’Malley “encouraged us to be heroes” during this difficult time, said the Rev. Paul Soper, the cardinal’s secretary for evangelization, and to be mindful that the new developments “are tearing open the wounds of the survivors” of sexual abuse.
O’Malley was among many prelates Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganó singled out in his 11-page letter, saying O’Malley’s statements denying any prior knowledge of McCarrick’s misdeeds “have totally obscured his transparency and credibility.”
A spokesman for O’Malley said the cardinal stands by his statement that he knew nothing about McCarrick’s misconduct until it was revealed to the public in media reports this summer.
As O’Malley spoke Tuesday, a small group of protesters stood outside in sweltering heat, carrying signs and questioning whether the cardinal and Francis knew of the longstanding allegations against McCarrick.
Robert Hoatson, a former priest whom McCarrick ordained in 1997, said that O’Malley, one of the pope’s closest advisers, should resign if he knew about the allegations.
“He’s got to come clean,” said Hoatson, president of Road to Recovery, which assists victims of clergy abuse and their families. “What did he know and when did he know it?”
None of several priests interviewed after the meeting called for the pope or O’Malley to resign. Soper said that losing the cardinal’s direction at this stage of the sexual-abuse crisis, 16 years after widespread allegations surfaced in the Boston Archdiocese, would do serious harm to the process.
“Certainly, the calls are there. They’re real,” Soper said of critics who want the cardinal and Francis to step down if they knew earlier about the McCarrick allegations. However, he added, if O’Malley “were to resign as the archbishop of Boston today, who would lead us through this?”
The meeting followed a Pennsylvania grand jury’s findings that more than 1,000 children had been molested by 300 priests over 70 years. Locally, allegations of sexual misconduct at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton have prompted O’Malley to order an investigation.
O’Malley canceled a planned trip to Ireland scheduled to intersect with the papal visit there over the weekend, saying he needed to focus on fixing the problems at the seminary.
On Saturday, in an interview with the Globe, O’Malley called on all US dioceses to cooperate with law enforcement, when asked, during any abuse investigations. He also said that he was surprised by the allegations against McCarrick, some of which were contained in a 2015 letter to O’Malley.
The cardinal, who is president of the pope’s Commission for the Protection of Minors, said his secretary did not forward that letter to him. The secretary told the priest who reported the allegation that the commission does not deal with individual cases of abuse.
O’Malley has apologized for the way those allegations were handled.
After Tuesday’s meeting, Soper acknowledged that the recent allegations have stirred new outrage against the church and its leaders, who victims and critics say have not matched years of rhetoric with action and results.
“I feel it certainly in my heart,” Soper said. “The outrage is very real. It’s very much there.”
Priests who attended the session described a candid exchange of views and emotions following O’Malley’s address, in which he acknowledged the devastating findings of the Pennsylvania grand jury.
The Rev. James Ronan of St. Mary’s Church in Charlestown called the meeting “uplifting” and said O’Malley spoke of the mission of the priesthood and “how we do our job.”
Mitchell Garabedian, who has long represented victims of clergy sex abuse, stood outside the church with the protesters. If the allegations are true that Francis knew about McCarrick’s abuse, Garabedian said, he should step down.
“The pope has to set an example for all the priests and resign,” Garabedian said.
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com