The cardinal’s formidable record on abuse is being tested
In 2014, Pope Francis chose Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston to head the new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, the Holy Father’s top council of advisors on the sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy. When reports began piling up that Theodore McCarrick had abused several young men and at least two minors over the course of his priestly career, all eyes therefore turned towards O’Malley. How would he respond?
“While the Church in the United States has adopted a zero tolerance policy regarding the sexual abuse of minors by priests, we must have clearer procedures for cases involving bishops,” he said in a statement. “The Church needs a strong and comprehensive policy to address bishops’ violations of the vows of celibacy in cases of the criminal abuse of minors and in cases involving adults.”
It appears that Cardinal O’Malley was referring to the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Young People (commonly called the Dallas Charter), which was deliberately changed during the drafting process to remove a reference to “clerics”. Instead, the Charter only addresses abuse committed by “priests and deacons”. One of the bishops who sat on the drafting committee explained that disciplining “clerics” would include bishops, something that lay “beyond the purview of this document”.
The bishops agreed, but never explained exactly why. There are several possible reasons. Investigations into bishops are usually led by Vatican authorities – not the bishops’ colleagues in the national conference. This is how the Juan Barros affair was addressed. When the Chilean bishop was accused of complicity in clerical abuse, the Holy See dispatched Archbishop Charles Scicluna to investigate and determine the veracity of the accusations.
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops could have passed a resolution to ensure that substantial claims of abuse against bishops reached the Vatican as quickly as possible. They did not do so. Some commentators have suggested that they were more interested in shielding themselves from scandal, and that this was the real reason the word “clerics” disappeared from the document.
Disturbingly, in the days following the release of Cardinal O’Malley’s statement, reports emerged that his office was informed of McCarrick’s behaviour and failed to act. In June 2015, Fr Boniface Ramsey wrote to O’Malley, warning him of “a form of sexual abuse … or maybe simply high-jinks as practised by Theodore Cardinal McCarrick with his seminarians and perhaps other young men”.
Faced with this new revelation, O’Malley insisted that he “did not personally receive” Fr Ramsey’s letter. “At the staff level the letter was reviewed and determined that the matters presented did not fall under the purview of the Commission or the Archdiocese of Boston,” he said.
Many veteran Catholic journalists were surprised by the negligence of O’Malley’s office. Some of them placed the blame on his shoulders. “Cardinal O’Malley’s statement was a disgraceful example of buck-passing by the Church official who is supposed to be in charge of ensuring that the buck is not passed,” said Phil Lawler, the Boston-based editor of Catholic World News. “If he was not informed, his ignorance is culpable; his staff should have been trained to bring important issues to his attention.”
Lawler added: “Notice that in his statement he does not say that he was unaware of the letter’s contents.”
The question of what, precisely, Cardinal O’Malley knew about McCarrick has not been satisfactorily answered. It is being widely claimed that the ex-cardinal’s “high-jinks” were an open secret at every level of the American Church hierarchy. Even if he never read Fr Ramsey’s letter, O’Malley might have heard some of the rumours about “Uncle Ted”.
This would seem a clear case of negligence were O’Malley a mere company man. Yet this Capuchin friar has a formidable record of acting against child abusers – in his previous diocese of Palm Beach, in scandal-ridden Boston and in Ireland, where he served as the apostolic visitor responsible for making sure that desperately needed reforms were carried out.
In January this year he courageously rebuked the Holy Father himself for accusing Barros’s victims of calumny. O’Malley said Pope Francis’s words “were a source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy or any other perpetrator”, and that they “abandon those who have suffered reprehensible criminal violations of their human dignity and relegate survivors to discredited exile”.
It is hard to believe that a man who challenged the Pope on his insensitivity towards Barros’s victims could have turned a blind eye toward McCarrick’s ongoing abuse. Until now, nobody has questioned O’Malley’s commitment to seeking justice for victims – a commitment that, unsurprisingly, has taken a considerable toll on him.
Cardinal Malley must now ensure that no more McCarricks are allowed to hide behind their mitres. He must deliver the “strong and comprehensive policy” that he has called for. In the meantime, however, he must expect to face further questions about his own failure to spot a flagrant abuser at the highest level of the American Church.