Pope Francis’ chief adviser on sexual abuse believed the church had turned a critical corner. The year was 2002 and the future Cardinal Sean O’Malley was sitting in a ballroom where his fellow bishops had just pledged a new era of transparency and accountability in confronting the burgeoning clergy abuse crisis.
“I was very relieved,’’ recalled O’Malley, who led the Fall River diocese at the time of the bishops’ conference in Dallas 16 years ago. “I thought it was a path forward.’’
But as The Boston Globe and Philadelphia Inquirer reported Sunday in a joint investigation, it wasn’t.
More than 130 bishops – almost one-third of all living bishops – have been accused during their careers of failing to adequately respond to sexual misconduct in their dioceses, according to an examination of thousands of court records, media reports, and interviews with church officials, victims, and attorneys.
“I’m shocked by that number,’’ O’Malley said in an interview at Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross, responding to the two organizations’ report. “It raises a lot of questions in my mind.’’
Those questions will be at the center of next week’s conference when the American bishops convene in Baltimore to confront an issue that has long confounded them: How can US bishops – who answer only to the Vatican — hold themselves accountable to policies designed to protect children from sexual predators among the clergy?
The news organizations’ investigation found that claims against more than 50 bishops involve incidents that happened after the historic 2002 Dallas conference at which they specifically excluded themselves from landmark child protection policies. One bishop, Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese in Missouri, refused to step down for nearly three years after he was found guilty in 2012 of failing to report a priest’s suspected child abuse.
“It’s inexplicable,’’ said O’Malley, 74, who by turns was emotional and resolute during a 50-minute interview in a cathedral conference room. “I mean anybody at this point in history who would not understand the consequences of not embracing zero tolerance and transparency — I cannot understand that.’’
Aides to O’Malley have forwarded the Globe and Inquirer report to the Vatican. Next week, O’Malley plans to encourage his fellow bishops to hold themselves just as accountable as any priest who has been removed from ministry for abusing children.
O’Malley said the bishops next week must ensure serious consequences for bishops who enable sexual misconduct or engage in misconduct themselves.
“Like the priest, he will not be allowed to present himself as a cleric, not participate in church activities or boards or liturgical celebrations,” O’Malley said.
“That is something that the bishops will ask for. It will have to be Rome that will make [the decision]. And I think they’ll respond to us,’’ he said.
O’Malley’s comments come at a fraught time for the American Catholic Church and for the church’s ministries around the world.
Allegations of misconduct are roiling dioceses around the United States. A damning grand jury report in Pennsylvania in August detailed hundreds of instances of clergy sexual abuse over decades, many kept hidden by church officials.
At least 13 attorneys general have now opened investigations. The reborn crisis, which first exploded in Boston under Cardinal Bernard Law in 2002, is emptying the church’s pews and its pocketbook.
O’Malley is a Capuchin Franciscan friar who worked among poor immigrants in Washington and opened homeless shelters and an AIDS hospice as the new bishop in the Virgin Islands in the 1980s. In those days, he had no idea that the sex abuse crisis would become the centerpiece of his priestly life.
“I was 19 years old in the monastery when I took my vows,’’ he said. “I never imagined that this would be such a big part of my life.”
O’Malley first confronted victims of clergy sex abuse during the 1990s in Fall River, where James Porter, a former priest, had raped or molested dozens of young boys and girls more than two decades earlier.
The crisis has followed him since then. And now, he frequently finds himself in Rome at the right hand of the pope, discussing how best the Roman Catholic Church can rid itself of this scourge. Pope Francis has come under attack for his halting and uneven record responding to the sex abuse crisis.
And in August, O’Malley had to confront the crisis directly, apologizing for the way his office handled a 2015 letter that contained allegations against Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington who was removed from ministry in June and resigned in July in the wake of charges that he had sexually abused minors and seminarians.
O’Malley said that he never saw the letter and that it was handled by a staff member, who told the letter’s author that individual cases like McCarrick’s were not handled by the commission that O’Malley leads.
“I would hope people who know me know that I am truthful,’’ O’Malley told the Globe. “And if I had read the letter, I would have said that I had seen the letter.’’
As for the investigation conducted by the Globe and the Inquirer that found bishops have suffered few consequences for their misconduct, O’Malley was blunt.
“The church talks about prayer and penance,’’ he said. “But prayer and penance should be just that. Hopefully the new policies that will be developed [will] be a very important way forward to make it clear that when someone is removed, the church expects them to live a life of prayer and not business as usual.’’
When asked how misconduct could remain so common in an institution that has been rocked by a crisis now 16 years old, O’Malley said: “I have the same question.’’ What followed was a long silence.
“It’s a huge disappointment,’’ he said. “Every time I think we’re rounding [the corner], there’s another explosion that happens. It’s very disappointing.’’
In late October, a former assistant to Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo accused him of covering up abuse. That assistant had released hundreds of secret documents that showed how Malone, who once worked under Cardinal Law in Boston, repeatedly mishandled cases in Buffalo.
“I’m shocked,’’ said O’Malley, who briefly overlapped with Malone when O’Malley arrived in 2003. “I mean they need to explain what happened there. . . . The questions that have been raised are very, very serious. Leaving people in ministry after an accusation, moving people, just so many violations of the [Dallas] charter.’’
O’Malley said his advice to his fellow bishops next week will be straightforward: The protection of children must remain paramount.
“If someone is unwilling or unable to enforce the policies of the charter, they should not be a bishop in the United States or anywhere else for that matter,” he said.
And he said the church needs help precisely from the people who are leaving it in droves.
“All the bishops that I’ve spoken with are convinced we need the help of the lay people,’’ he said. “We need our [civilian] review boards. We need our experts. We need our archdiocesan pastoral councils to help us to be able to make good decisions.’’
O’Malley said some 300 people in the archdiocese of Boston remain in counseling as a result of sexual attacks by Catholic clergy. He said about 20 percent of what is spent in the United States to help victims heal the wounds of abuse is spent by the archdiocese of Boston.
“There’s no one doing what we are doing,’’ he said. “We pay for their counselors. We pay for medications, for hospitalizations.”
O’Malley said he was stunned by the depth of the crisis that erupted in 2002 and he said people are even more concerned the second time around.
“People were very upset with the bishops in 2002,’’ he said. “But I think there was an anger that the bishops had allowed this to happen, and, of course, 16 years later that this is blowing up again. The anger’s even greater.’’