Rebuilding from the ruins

Rebuilding from the ruins Cardinal Seán Patrick O'Malley
Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley on the 2002 Boston sex-abuse scandal and what Ireland might learn


A decade ago, the Boston clergy sexual abuse crisis engulfed the archdiocese. Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley was named Archbishop of Boston in 2003. He replaced Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned in 2002.

In 2010, when the Church in Ireland was engulfed in a clergy sexual-abuse scandal, Cardinal O’Malley was asked to assist with the Apostolic Visitation of a number of seminaries and dioceses there, and was named the visitor to the Archdiocese of Dublin.

In 2003, you were installed as the new Archbishop of Boston, following the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law. How do you rebuild the Church from the ruins?

It was daunting at the beginning — so much hurt and anger, and such disastrous economic consequences. There was a drop-off in vocations. Everywhere we turned there was crisis and pain.

Yet there remains our firm conviction that Christ does not abandon his Church — though he did not promise it would be easy.

We saw this as a call to conversion. In my own life, it has made me focus on what is really essential — our relationship with God. Everything else in the past — all the pain and suffering — was put in a new perspective.

We spoke about ‘rebuilding trust’, trying to help the victims to trust us again. That meant we were taking this seriously and we weren’t going to let this happen again.

Transparency has been an important part of that. We published everything about finances. We published more than any other diocese in the world.

We wanted to do that because the [issue of] money being used for sex abuse cases was a very hot topic. I wanted to demonstrate that we were not using parish funds, parishes were not being closed to pay for the sex abuse crisis. Instead, that money came from the sale of the bishop’s residence.

After your arrival, you met continuously with survivors on a regular basis. How else have you tried to reach out directly to Catholics harmed by priests?

On Ascension Thursday 2006, we began a ‘Pilgrimage of Repentance and Hope: The Novena to the Holy Spirit’ held in nine communities that experienced a history of sexual abuse. The hope was to publicly show the sorrow and contrition on the part of the community for the suffering of victims and their families, and also to invite people to come back and be part of the Church after they were alienated by the scandal.

During the course of the novena, thousands of people participated. We had prayers, Psalms, readings. I spoke, and so did some of the victims and their families. We invited [archdiocesan] priests, and large numbers came. They prayed prostrate on the floor, praying litanies, asking for forgiveness.

Afterward, many people told me that was their reason for coming back. These were parishes that had suffered so much. It was an opportunity for them to express their feelings. It was very important for the priests to be a part of it.

I encouraged them to do this in Dublin [where he led an investigation of child sexual abuse in the Church in Ireland], because I saw that it was a vehicle for healing, and while I was there, we had a service of remembrance and repentance that was very well attended and received.

During this time, what has been the experience of the vast majority of priests who are innocent of any abuse?

Typically, Catholics who were involved in the parish were supportive of their priests. But the Catholics who only came to church occasionally were much more suspicious of priests. Those who were already at one arm’s length were now at two arms’ length.

The faithful Catholics knew how much the priests were hurting and tried to be supportive. At my installation, when I thanked the priests, there was sustained, thunderous applause. The priests themselves were surprised.

We now have a national policy of zero tolerance for priests with credible allegations of abuse, but few penalties have been imposed against negligent bishops. Going forward, should the Church establish a clear disciplinary framework for bishops who fail to protect children?

My hope is that with the very clear policies put in place, if a bishop is reckless in neglecting this, I think that’s something that demands attention on the part of the Holy See. Obviously, here in Boston, Cardinal Law did resign. The Holy See accepted his resignation.

[W]e need to deal with this issue going forward, since it has been made clear as to what the mistakes were in the past — not to repeat them.

Part of the problem in the past was that the bishops and people in general did not even suspect how much harm was being done to these children.

Regarding the issue of episcopal responsibility, a slightly different pattern has developed in Ireland, where some bishops have resigned. How would you explain that?

I can’t speak specifically, but in some cases there was an awareness of responsibility. In the case of one bishop who resigned, there was a lot of push back. The people said: ”He shouldn’t have resigned.” But he himself felt he had not done enough. Each case was different.

Some Catholics suggest that while media attention has stressed bishops’ failures to stop criminal behavior, there are other mounting problems that need effective leadership — such as the need for better catechesis — but those issues don’t get the same attention.

[There was a time when] some bishops were very seldom even seen, and had very little contact with clergy. One of my predecessors used to go to the Bahamas at Christmas and he didn’t come back until Easter.

The bishop has to be present to his people. He has to be proactive.

At the same time, the crisis in many ways has made it more difficult to mobilise the priests here to [present Church] teaching on issues like same-sex ‘marriage’. Many of them were so beaten up, and they said, ”You want me to talk about what?”

That whole prophetic role of the Church has been damaged by the scandal. So often when the Church does speak out on any of these topics that are difficult, people say, ”Well you allowed these children to be raped, how can you say anything about this?”

I was talking to the priests’ council about assisted suicide, and I told them, ”We have to reassert our prophetic role around this. It doesn’t mean you present this in a way that’s insensitive to people’s feelings when you preach on abortion — knowing there are people who have had an abortion, or on same-sex ‘marriage’ when you have homosexual parishioners.”

Published in the National Catholic Register www.ncreg