While many were enjoying the Christmas season at home with their families and away from a frantic news climate of daily revelations about public figures, both religious and secular, a rift seemed to open between two of America’s most prominent clergymen. Despite the best efforts of the US bishops’ conference convening in Illinois in the first week of January, the hierarchy is not presenting a united front.
Just before Christmas, Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston sent a letter to Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, calling his attention to a New York Times report about a priest, Fr Donald Timone, in the Archdiocese of New York. Fr Timone had been allowed to remain in ministry despite several settlements with people who had accused him of sexual misconduct. Church-watchers quickly concluded that O’Malley was, in effect, reporting New York archbishop Cardinal Timothy Dolan to the nuncio.
The letter, from which names are redacted, makes reference to correspondence sent to O’Malley from someone in New York. O’Malley wrote: “I note the seriousness of the allegations [redacted] presents with regard to Rev Timone and that today the New York Times has published an extensive report concerning the allegations against Rev Timone.” It is not clear whether the person whose correspondence is being forwarded was one of the people discussed in the New York Times article.
One can safely assume that the nuncio does not need someone to read the New York Times for him, and this was more about O’Malley going on the record (at least to insiders) with his disapproval of the handling of cases in New York. Yet there is also what one might call a second track to this story. The main story is the Times report and the response to it, which revealed the settlements and questioned why the priest had been allowed to remain in ministry, and O’Malley’s decision to intervene. The second track, which played out in the Catholic press, concerns a small Catholic college trying to get a straight answer about Fr Timone.
Here is the timeline of events: on December 13, administrators at John Paul the Great University in California received a letter of suitability for Fr Timone from the Archdiocese of New York, sent on December 4. Then, on December 20, the New York Times broke the news about ongoing investigations into Fr Timone, prompting the college to seek clarification from the Archdiocese of New York. On December 21, Cardinal O’Malley sent a letter to the papal nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre. Fr Timone was removed from ministry. Finally, on December 28, the Spanish news site Religión Digital published the letter from O’Malley. US news outlets reported on the letter in the days that followed.
According to Ed Condon at the Catholic News Agency, Fr Timone had taught on a yearly basis at the school for a decade. Suitability letters were sent every year, as is required of priests operating outside the diocese in which they are incardinated. Fr Timone had previously been investigated in 2002 and 2003. So the archdiocese did not disclose that Fr Timone was under investigation in any of the suitability letters it sent to the college. Officials at John Paul the Great evidently felt betrayed and spoke to reporters.
The case has ramifications for Catholic institutions across the country. Condon points out that, because of recent scandals, these letters of suitability have taken on a new level of importance. If they can’t be trusted, that has implications for all priests. Indeed, some have suggested that this scandal is serious enough to force Cardinal Dolan’s resignation. Even before the Times report, subpoenas were sent out from the New York Attorney General to all eight dioceses in the state. Some claim that Dolan may be trying to get out of New York before any revelations from those subpoenas come out. Church Militant has reported that “well-placed sources” tell them just that.
Cardinal O’Malley’s latest action continues a recent trend in which he has broken an unspoken rule by openly criticising his fellow bishops, including Pope Francis. Last January, he criticised the Pope’s handling of the situation in Chile, in which the Pope accused critics of Bishop Juan Barros, who has since resigned, of “calumny”. The cardinal’s outspokeness seems to have resulted in a loss of favour at the Vatican. O’Malley was notably not initially named among the participants in next month’s safeguarding summit in Rome. Instead, Chicago’s Cardinal Blaise Cupich, a staunch progressive and reliable papal ally, was appointed to take part.
Incidentally, Cupich’s role in the meeting is proving controversial. Around the time the Times published its report, the cardinal was accused of allowing known predators among the local province of the Jesuits to live on Gonzaga University’s campus while he was Bishop of Spokane. (Cupich’s successor in Spokane, Bishop Thomas Daly, said he was not informed by the Jesuits or Gonzaga University that the men were living on campus. Cardinal Cupich had not responded to the claims as we went to press.)
O’Malley, meanwhile, has built a reputation as a “fixer” on sexual abuse since he was parachuted into Boston in 2003. If he is truly being sidelined, then the American laity’s confidence in Rome’s handling of the crisis is likely to be shaken even further.