Pope Francis has conspicuously omitted Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley from a committee that is organizing a high-stakes summit on child abuse prevention at the Vatican in February, but O’Malley nonetheless said Friday he plans on attending and fully participating.
O’Malley’s absence from the four-member planning committee was striking because he is often considered one of Francis’s closest American advisers and is head of a Vatican advisory panel on the prevention of clergy sexual abuse.
When the list of names was released Friday, some church observers debated whether O’Malley’s absence was a sign that he has lost his stature in Rome.
But O’Malley said he was grateful for the appointment of the committee and noted that Francis has asked his advisory panel to “serve as a resource for the organizing committee.”
O’Malley also noted that his advisory panel had recommended the Vatican hold the summit to allow prelates from around the world to discuss the crisis confronting them.
“I am pleased that this meeting has been convoked by the Holy Father and I look forward to participating,” O’Malley said in a statement.
The four members named by Francis to the organizing committee are Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago; the Rev. Hans Zollner, who also serves on O’Malley’s advisory panel; Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, a former Vatican sex crimes prosecutor; and Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the archbishop of Mumbai.
David Gibson, director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University, said Friday he didn’t see O’Malley’s absence as a sign that the cardinal has lost his privileged position as a member of Francis’ inner circle.
“O’Malley is on the papal commission that helped set up the February summit, he will take part, and he and Cupich are pretty much on the same page in terms of the necessity of forceful reforms,” Gibson said in an e-mail. He noted, however, that O’Malley, who has a number of critical roles in the church, turns 75 next year and “can’t do everything.”
“I do think including Cupich on the organizing committee is a sign that Francis wants to develop some other ‘go-to’ American bishops who have credibility on this issue,” Gibson said.
Zollner told the Vatican News that the committee will organize the logistics and content of the February summit and will have a “close collaborative rapport” with O’Malley’s panel. It’s not yet clear what actions, if any, will be taken at the summit, but Zollner said he’ll begin by sending a questionnaire to the participants.
The summit has taken on heightened importance after the Vatican blocked American bishops from taking action earlier this month when they met in Baltimore to adopt a raft of reforms designed to hold themselves accountable for abuse and coverups.
The American bishops had planned to take action after a Pennsylvania grand jury this summer alleged decades of rampant abuse, and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, resigned amid accusations of sexual abuse and misconduct.
But the Vatican demanded that the bishops delay the approval of tougher policies until February, a request that stunned some bishops and outraged advocates for sexual abuse survivors.
“It doesn’t seem to me, reading the tea leaves, that it looks very good for Cardinal O’Malley, not only because of this recent Vatican decision on the February meeting, but going back to the Baltimore situation,” said Terence McKiernan, codirector of BishopAccountability.org, which tracks abuse cases against church leaders. “It can’t be good to be left out of the planning.”
O’Malley said after the delay in Baltimore that American bishops still feel a sense of urgency to hold themselves accountable, a sentiment he reiterated Friday.
“This is a critical moment for the universal Church in addressing the sexual abuse crisis,” he said. “The February meeting will be an important moment for developing a clear path forward for dioceses around the world.”
Michael Sean Winters, a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter who speaks regularly to O’Malley and other members of the church hierarchy, dismissed the notion that O’Malley had been snubbed. He said O’Malley may simply have told the pope he has “too much on his plate” to accept another Vatican assignment.
“There’s no rift,” Winters said. “And I would know if there’s a rift.”
Tom Roberts, a former editor at large at the National Catholic Reporter, also rejected talk of tension between O’Malley and Francis.
“My understanding is that the pope and O’Malley are still in close communication,” he wrote in an e-mail. “And Sean, I would imagine, will be involved in this gathering in some manner. I think it is more a matter of spreading the work around.”
In addition to the February meeting, O’Malley has a regularly scheduled meeting in Rome early next month.
In his statement Friday, he said the church must embrace a zero-tolerance policy toward abuse, work for greater transparency, release the names of accused clergy, and encourage all religious orders to adopt abuse prevention policies and work with civil and legal authorities.
“Above all else, we must place the support and pastoral care of survivors first,” he said. “This is a life-long journey that is now part of the fabric of the Catholic family and requires a partnership between the laity and clergy in responding to the failures of episcopal leadership by holding bishops accountable for the crimes against children and vulnerable adults.”Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.