Twelve years have passed, but Father Roger Landry, a Fall River, Mass., priest, vividly remembers then-Bishop Seán O’Malley weeping during a meeting with his priests as he recalled the stories of victims of clergy abuse.

At the time, Bishop O’Malley was preparing for the 2002 Dallas meeting that would approve a landmark “zero tolerance” policy for priests credibly accused of child sexual abuse. Bishop O’Malley had come to Fall River in 1992, in the wake of a scandal involving a serial clerical predator, James Porter.

“As he was recalling what some of the victims of Father Porter had told him, he started to weep so profusely that he needed to excuse himself for several minutes,” Father Landry told the Register.

“The sexual abuse of minors in the Church was never an ‘issue’ for him that he could approach in a detached way. It had a human face — in fact, many human faces — and affected him viscerally,” Father Landry added.

“He approached the sexual-abuse crisis in the Diocese of Fall River as a spiritual father and human being, not litigiously,” Father Landry said.

Now, as a member of Pope Francis’ council of cardinals, Cardinal O’Malley of Boston has brought that same pastoral sensitivity, combined with a hard-nosed insistence on “zero tolerance” policies and bishop accountability, to the Vatican, where he has become one of the Pope’s most influential advisers.

This month, for the first time since his 2013 election, Pope Francis will meet with clergy-abuse victims, who will be accompanied by Cardinal O’Malley, who helped set up the gathering. Further, Pope Francis has announced a Vatican investigation, and possible penalties, for three bishops linked to abuse cases — though the nature of their alleged transgressions has not been explained.

Last December, the Boston archbishop announced that Pope Francis had created a commission to address the pastoral needs of clergy-abuse victims and that it would be composed of leading religious and lay experts on this issue.

“The Holy See will try and help to identify best practices,” Cardinal O’Malley told reporters at the time of the announcement. “Certainly, we hope that the Holy See will be able to model what those best practices are as a way of helping other dioceses and bishops’ conferences to have a response that is truly adequate and pastoral.”

Even before Pope Francis’ election, Cardinal O’Malley underscored the importance of a strong Vatican response to abuse cases, when he deployed the Boston Archdiocese’s top canon lawyer, Father Robert Oliver, to serve as the promoter of justice at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The promoter of justice is the chief prosecutor of clergy-abuse cases sent to the Holy See for review.

Cardinal O’Malley’s experience with the trauma inflicted by clerical predators began with his tenure in Fall River and deepened with subsequent appointments to address abuse scandals in Palm Beach, Fla., and Boston.


Setting a New Tone

In Fall River, Bishop O’Malley set a new tone by reaching out to abuse victims. But he also showed himself capable of making policy changes that upset many local clergy, who felt they were unfairly tarnished by the scandals.

Arlene McNamee, the director of Catholic Social Services in the Diocese of Fall River, with supervisory responsibility for issues related to child sexual abuse, recalled Bishop O’Malley’s initial efforts to address anger in the pews over clergy abuse, as well as anxiety from many local clergy, who feared they could be swept up in “a witch hunt.”

“You had to convert people. And he was the first to say, ‘We need policies and procedures’; and by 1995, they were in place,” McNamara told the Register, noting the establishment of safe-environment training, a code of conduct and a review board.

“If there was an allegation, we moved to put people on administrative leave until an investigation could be completed. In time, people saw that we just wanted to keep children safe. Now, it is a part of the culture.”

In 2002, when Bishop Anthony O’Connell of Palm Beach resigned after admitting he had sexually abused a teenage seminary student two decades earlier, Bishop O’Malley was appointed to replace him.

Father Charles Notabartolo, the vicar general for the Diocese of Palm Beach, who was appointed by Cardinal O’Malley and still serves in that role, said the bishop primarily focused on “restoring confidence in the episcopacy.”

“His attitude made the difference: He was open to meeting with people and listening to them. He is very intelligent and was able to reach people at all levels,” Father Notabartolo told the Register, adding that the bishop’s Capuchin charism, defined by a simplicity of life, helped to set a new tone.

But in less than a year, Pope John Paul II appointed him as the archbishop of Boston, which had become the epicenter of the U.S. clergy-abuse crisis. In 2003, he replaced Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned after the publication of archdiocesan personnel files revealed that priests with credible allegations of abuse had been reassigned to new parishes, with no warning to their parishioners.


Building Victims’ Trust

Looking back on his arrival in Boston, during a 2012 interview with the Register, Cardinal O’Malley recalled, “It was daunting at the beginning — so much hurt and anger.”

Amid an explosion of lawsuits and a sharp decline in donations to the local Church, he emphasized the need “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.”

Olan Horne, an abuse survivor who would later meet with Pope Benedict XVI during his trip to the U.S. in 2008,  told the Register that he was initially skeptical, but he gradually learned to trust the new Boston archbishop.

“There was a time when they would deny us and dismiss us [victims]. [Cardinal] O’Malley has never betrayed my confidence and trust,” said Horne, who now applauds the Boston archbishop’s visible role in the Vatican on this issue.

“[Cardinal] O’Malley pushed to have Pope Benedict take responsibility. He has called for bishop accountability. He has taken on the [new Vatican] commission. He would like to come home [to stay] after all he has done, but he hasn’t done that.”

Cardinal O’Malley’s efforts to banish any complacency about the need to guard against sexual abuse will likely occupy much of his remaining years at the helm of the Boston Archdiocese.

His striking commitment suggests that he has never forgotten the searing experience of victims in Fall River, who lived for years, sometimes decades, with the anguish that remained after their innocence was violated.

“As a Good Shepherd, he wanted to protect the sheep and lambs entrusted to him from wolves,” said Father Landry. “He resolutely set the diocese on a path to repent of past abuse and prevent its recurrence.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.