Being Archbishop of Boston is not an easy job at the best of times. When Cardinal Seán O’Malley took the post, it was the very worst of times. He succeeded the late Bernard Francis Law, one of the most scandal-ridden prelates of the modern era. Law’s gross mishandling of paedophile priests in his archdiocese made the Church in Boston synonymous with old men in Roman collars molesting altar boys. The laity’s trust in their clergy collapsed, which in turn contributed to a vocations crisis that has forced the archdiocese to close or merge over 250 parishes in the last year.
O’Malley rose to the occasion. He has been so diligent in cleaning up Boston that several Italian Vatican-watchers floated the possibility of his succeeding Benedict XVI in 2013. He is the most papabile American cardinal, and arguably the most powerful bishop in the United States.
When Pope Francis was elected, he found good use for the soft-spoken Capuchin. The following year, O’Malley was chosen to lead the Pontifical Commission for the Defence of Minors. The establishment of the commission was central to Francis’s image as a reformer; that he entrusted the initiative to O’Malley is powerful testimony to his faith in him.
But O’Malley’s responsibility for dealing with sexual abuse in the Catholic Church became something of a liability for the Holy Father last month, when Francis accused the victims of Chilean priest Fernando Karadima of “calumny” for claiming that his bishop, Juan Barros, knew of his predatory behaviour and yet refused to act on the information. “You, in all good will, tell me that there are victims, but I haven’t seen any, because they haven’t come forward,” the Pope said in a press conference.
The laity, and the media in particular, were outraged – and nowhere more than in Boston. Kevin Cullen, a columnist for the centre-left Boston Globe, heaped scorn on the Pope:
It should be noted that, for all the talk of Pope Francis cutting a new path for the Catholic Church, he was elected by a conclave of cardinals that included some of those cynical and criminal enablers of abuse, like the disgraced and disgraceful former archbishop of Los Angeles, Roger Mahony.
To be honest -,and the good Sisters of Providence who taught me at Cheverus School in Malden always stressed the importance of honesty – I knew that Francis was no different, that he was right out of central Vatican casting, last year, when Marie Collins quit the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors that Francis had created to much fanfare.
“Pope Francis fooled us,” Cullen concluded. “He fooled us all.”
This had the potential to be disastrous for O’Malley, who is widely seen as a Francis ally. But he did his job and stood up for Karadima’s victims. He said in a statement that the Pope’s words “abandon those who have suffered reprehensible criminal violations of their human dignity and relegate survivors to discredited exile”.
Then, on 5 February, reports emerged that the Pope received a letter in 2015 which “graphically detailed sexual abuse at the hands of a priest and a cover-up by Chilean church authorities”. Yet Francis had staunchly denied seeing any such evidence.
How do we know that Francis got the note? O’Malley apparently hand-delivered it to him.
According to these reports, the letter came to the attention of the Pontifical Commission for the Abuse of Minors in April 2015. This was shortly after Francis promoted Barros, against the advice of over the Chilean bishops’ conference, which believed that he had indeed witnessed Karadima’s attacks and kept silent.
Commission member Marie Collins told the Associated Press on 4 February: “When we gave him [O’Malley] the letter for the Pope, he assured us he would give it to the Pope and speak of the concerns. And at a later date, he assured us that that had been done.”
Juan Carlos Cruz, the author of the letter, also insisted that O’Malley had delivered it to Francis. “Cardinal O’Malley called me after the Pope’s visit here in Philadelphia and he told me, among other things, that he had given the letter to the Pope – in his hands,” Cruz said in an interview at his home.
This is devastating for Francis, and uncomfortable for O’Malley. If the cardinal denies handing the letter to the Pope, his admirers will be horrified (though they may not believe him). But if he confirms Collins’s and Cruz’s accounts, he will seriously undermine public confidence in the successor of Peter. Either way, he cannot evade the question. He must tell us whether he handed this explosive document to Francis.
There is already talk that the Holy Father may be forced to resign over the letter. To quote National Review senior writer Michael Brendan Dougherty, “The word conclave is being thrown around rather loosely by my sources.” If Francis does resign – which is hard to envisage, given his legendary stubbornness, but not impossible – O’Malley could be the favourite to succeed him, depending on how skilfully he negotiates this awful crisis.
Ultimately, however, it is the Pope rather than the cardinal whose entire reputation hangs in the balance this week. Francis’s most loyal supporters are dumbstruck by this turn of events. That alone speaks volumes.