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Pope Francis greets Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley during a Eucharist celebration at St. Peter's Basilica, the Vatican, Dec. 12, 2014.
Pope Francis greets Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley during a Eucharist celebration at St. Peter's Basilica, the Vatican, Dec. 12, 2014.Franco Origlia/Getty Images/file 2014/Getty Images

Is Cardinal Sean O’Malley trying to rescue Pope Francis — or replace him?

Sure, a papal coup engineered by the archbishop of Boston sounds like a pitch for yet another Rome-based novel stuffed with Vatican intrigue. But O’Malley is challenging a vulnerable pope’s handling of the clergy sexual abuse scandal in an unusually public way, at an extremely delicate time — just as a summit called by Francis to address the issue gets underway in Rome.

In politics, that’s called positioning. When it ratchets up to a high enough level, it’s also called throwing your leader under the bus. Or, in this case, under the altar.

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Boston businessman Jack Connors, who has donated and raised millions for Catholic causes, and knows O’Malley well, said in an interview that it’s wrong to view O’Malley’s recent media engagement through a secular PR prism. He said there’s no politics or grandstanding going on; O’Malley is just trying to help a friend. “The cardinal is seeing in Rome this good man who is surrounded by people who aren’t quite as good as he is,” he said. “He’s trying to rescue him, to put him on the right track.”

If so, O’Malley’s doing it by promoting his own portfolio. A recent Wall Street Journal story details O’Malley’s push for a tougher stance on clergy-abuse reforms, which, the Journal reports, has created a major rift with Francis. In an interview with the Atlantic, O’Malley talks about his own proposal to deal with bishops accused of wrongdoing. The pope, observed O’Malley, “was convinced to do it another way,” adding, “we’re still waiting for the procedures to be clearly articulated.” In that same interview, O’Malley also chided Archbishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, who fired back with a statement criticizing O’Malley for failing to “check on the facts and hear our side of the story.”

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O’Malley succeeded Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned in disgrace in 2002, after revelations concerning his role in the coverup of clerical abuse. After Pope Benedict XVI retired and Francis took over, O’Malley went on to become a close adviser to the new pope.

Initially, Francis charmed the world, and especially liberal Catholics, with rhetoric that suggested a kinder, gentler, more tolerant church. But after defending some predator priests and dragging his feet on meaningful institutional reform, he has come under attack from disappointed activists. Meanwhile, ultraconservative forces within the Catholic Church have used the crisis to undermine the pope. And now comes O’Malley, from the other side of the political spectrum, attacking Francis on the same issue.

Yet O’Malley, who was chosen by the pope to head an advisory panel on child protection, has not won universal praise for his efforts on that score.

“I appreciate what Cardinal O’Malley has contributed to the public conversation,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, codirector of the advocacy group BishopAccountability.com. “He has beaten the drum about holding bishops accountable. But when the rubber meets the road, what does that mean to him? To me, it means releasing all the pertinent information about credibly accused clergy. Cardinal O’Malley has not met that criterion.”

Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston lawyer who has represented clergy abuse survivors nationwide, rates O’Malley’s record on handling the clergy sexual abuse crisis in Boston as “poor.” He said, “Clergy sexual abuse victims are still coming forward. Victims report meeting with him as being an awful emotional disappointment; effective programs have not been in place in the Archdiocese of Boston; and he is not reaching out to victims locally.”

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To Garabedian, the unusual public disagreement between Francis and O’Malley “is an example of how disorganized, politicized, and paralyzed the Catholic Church is when it deals with the clergy sexual abuse crisis.” As he sees it, “The Catholic Church is panicking because it is in unchartered waters.”

At 75, it makes sense for O’Malley to try to move the church forward and out of the muck of the past. And once he does whatever he can, why shouldn’t it be every man for himself? In the end, a cardinal is like the rest of us: human.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.