ROME — As Pope Francis presides over a virtually unprecedented summit of Catholic bishops to grapple with the church’s clerical abuse scandals, the pontiff’s erstwhile point man on the issue, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, is notable largely for his absence — not physically, because he is in the room, but from the inner circle shaping policy.
Filling the vacuum in large part have been activist groups such as Bishop Accountability, Ending Clergy Abuse, and Voices of Faith — the first US-based, the other two international, and all clamoring for reform not only on sex abuse but also other matters, such as the empowerment of women in the church.
They are ubiquitous in Rome this week, holding daily news conferences and briefings, making countless media appearances, and staging events such as a torch-lit vigil in memory of abuse victims on Thursday evening just a stone’s throw from the Vatican.
So strong has their presence been that on Tuesday, when Bishop Accountability and Voices of Faith held separate news conferences in the run-up to the opening of the pope’s summit, one veteran Italian journalist said Rome’s Foreign Press Club on that day had become a “counter-altar” to the Vatican’s own press office.
“I remember when a couple of us came in 2005, for the conclave, we had to beg for interviews,” said Barbara Dorris, a longtime activist on the clerical abuse issue with the US-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.
She was referring to the papal election in April 2005 after the death of John Paul II, which produced Pope Benedict XVI.
“Now we get a room full of journalists,” she said, referring to a standing-room-only crowd that turned out Tuesday for the Voices of Faith news conference in which Dorris participated.
On that occasion, Dorris said bluntly that she believes the pope’s summit, which has drawn presidents of national bishops’ conferences from around the world as well as the Vatican’s upper echelon for three days of meetings, is “all for show,” asserting that real change comes only from actors external to the church such as police and grand juries.
It’s not just on the outside, however, that the voices of victims are being heard. During Thursday’s opening session, five abuse survivors from around the world addressed the bishops, leaving little doubt about the stakes they’re facing.
“You are physicians of the soul, and yet, with rare exceptions, you have been transformed — in some cases — into murderers of the soul, into murderers of the faith. What a terrible contradiction,” said Juan Carlos Cruz, an abuse survivor from Chile.
Yet Cruz defended the work Pope Francis is doing in the Chilean church to address a decades-long crisis, one that led all the country’s bishops to submit their resignations last year. Eight of those bishops have been subpoenaed by civil authorities in Chile to testify on either charges of abuse or coverup.
Another survivor from Asia, whose identity was not revealed, spoke about being sexually abused over 100 times, which created “traumas and flashbacks all across my life.”
If “we want to save the church, we need to get our act together,” the person said.
While the victims’ activists are increasingly being heard, it is nonetheless clear that the once-warm relationship between O’Malley and his boss has become increasingly cool.
The chill began in 2017, when O’Malley lost a Vatican battle over reducing the punishments of priests found guilty of abusing minors. (The Boston prelate was opposed to lighter punishments.) It continued last year, when O’Malley publicly distanced himself from Francis after the pope accused abuse victims in Chile of “calumny” in their complaints against a bishop they saw as complicit.
And O’Malley was pointedly left off the organizing committee for the summit, though the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors he heads did play a behind-the-scenes supporting role.
O’Malley was present Thursday as Francis opened the summit with a brief talk indicating that the “People of God looks to us, and expects from us not simple and predictable condemnations, but concrete and effective measures.”
In terms of which “concrete measures” may result from the summit, some hint was delivered in a speech by Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, a former Vatican prosecutor for sex abuse crimes who is considered a leading reformer.
Scicluna called for mandatory reporting to civil authorities, noting that beyond church rules, priests and religious must also obey civil laws. He recommended screening of candidates for the priesthood, and he said that concealing information on the leadership ability of a candidate to become a bishop is a “great sin against the church.”
On the other hand, the Vatican may have stumbled Thursday in presenting a list of 21 suggestions that, it said, had been collected from different commissions and bishops’ conferences ahead of the summit.
One point suggested not releasing the names of accused priests until a “definitive condemnation” has been reached — which, if taken seriously, could invalidate the practice in most American dioceses of releasing names when an accusation is found to be credible.
Asked about that apparent tension in a Thursday news conference, Scicluna said the main thrust of the recommendation is to be “responsible” about releasing names.
Another “point of reflection” concerned punishments abuser priests ought to receive, recommending respect for “the traditional principle of proportionality of punishment with respect to the crime.”
To some observers, that line sounded like hesitance about defrocking all priests who sexually abuse minors.
Whether survivors will be satisfied with the summit remains to be seen. A group of a dozen who met summit organizers Wednesday came away with mixed reactions. “Pope Francis wasn’t there, and we made it very clear that wasn’t OK,” said Peter Isley, an abuse survivor and cofounder of the Ending Clergy Abuse network.
After the summit wraps up on Sunday, it likely will be the verdict of figures such as Isley that goes a long way toward shaping public attitudes about success or failure — and not so much, for all kinds of reasons, O’Malley, who’s now in the unenviable position of bearing blame whenever something goes wrong without the same ability to take credit when it goes right.
John L. Allen Jr., a former Globe associate editor, is now the editor of Crux, an independent news site covering the Catholic Church.