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Cardinal O’Malley and Pope Francis had disagreements over clergy abuse crisis, reports say

Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley in 2018.Lane Turner/Globe Staff/File

With Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley set to attend a major summit in Rome next week on preventing clergy sexual abuse, reports have emerged detailing clashes with Pope Francis and other Catholic leaders over how best to tackle a crisis that has rocked the church for nearly two decades.

The reports appeared Friday in the Wall Street Journal and Thursday in the Atlantic.

O’Malley, the Journal reported, met with top aides to Francis in 2017, concerned that the Vatican wasn’t living up to its promise of zero tolerance for abuse, after an appeals panel set up by the pontiff had reduced the punishments of priests found guilty of abusing minors.


“If this gets out, it will cause a scandal,” the Journal quoted O’Malley as telling Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, and other Vatican officials, citing an unnamed person present during the meeting.

The Journal also referenced Francis’ decision, previously reported by other outlets, to keep O’Malley off the organizing committee for the upcoming summit meeting at the Vatican. The move was striking because O’Malley is considered one of Francis’ closest American advisers and he heads a Vatican advisory panel on the prevention of clergy sex abuse.

In addition, the Journal recounted how O’Malley in 2015 persuaded Francis to create a special tribunal to try bishops who ignore or cover up abuse, but the pope changed his mind the following year.

Peter Saunders, a former abuse victim on the Vatican advisory panel, told the Journal that when he asked O’Malley what happened to the proposed tribunal, the cardinal said, “I really don’t know the answer. I wish I did.”

O’Malley, in an interview with the Atlantic for that publication’s story, discussed his proposal to create the Vatican tribunals for allegedly negligent bishops. The pope, O’Malley told the magazine, “was convinced to do it another way,” adding that “[w]e’re still waiting for the procedures to be clearly articulated.”


He also told the Atlantic that Francis understands the gravity of the abuse crisis, asserting that the pope’s “encounter with victims has made a very profound impact on his life and his ministry.”

In a statement to the Globe on Friday, O’Malley’s spokesman, Terrence Donilon, said the cardinal and the pontiff remain close.

“The Cardinal has been a force for change since his first experience with survivors of clergy abuse for more than 25 years,” Donilon said “I know he is hopeful for a successful conference next week as part of the Holy Father’s commitment to survivors, clergy and the global Catholic community. Cardinal Sean and Pope Francis enjoy a good and productive relationship, which goes back many years. Their relationship is sound and fine. Cardinal Sean is pleased to provide whatever support is needed to the Pope in leading the Church.”

O’Malley is in Rome now for previously scheduled meetings, Donilon said, and will attend the summit next week.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Michael Levenson of the Globe staff also contributed to it. Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.