Cardinal O’Malley at Safeguarding Summit: ‘The Wrongs Done to God’s People Must Be Corrected’

Pope Francis sent a video message to participants in the Warsaw meeting in which he urged leaders to put the welfare of victims ahead of the Church’s reputation.

Cardinal Seán O’Malley celebrates Mass during a safeguarding summit in Warsaw, Poland, Sept. 20, 2021.
Cardinal Seán O’Malley celebrates Mass during a safeguarding summit in Warsaw, Poland, Sept. 20, 2021. (photo: /

WARSAW, Poland — Cardinal Seán O’Malley told a safeguarding summit this week that “the wrongs done to God’s people must be corrected.”

Preaching at Mass on Sept. 20 at a conference in Warsaw, Poland, the archbishop of Boston called for an end to clerical abuse and cover-ups. 

“We are gathered here because so many of our brothers and sisters have suffered at the hands of abusive clergy who have perpetrated evil acts by using their office to abuse others or to cover up such abuse. And many times, those who have suffered have been rejected in their suffering when they spoke out,” he said.

“This cannot be what Jesus wants of his Church; this cannot be the Church of a loving and reconciling God. Abuse and its cover up must stop and the wrongs done to God’s people must be corrected.”

Cardinal O’Malley, the president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, was speaking during a four-day meeting, “Our Common Mission of Safeguarding God’s Children,” supported by the pontifical commission and the Bishops’ Conferences of Central and Eastern Europe.

The 77-year-old Capuchin cardinal praised the “courage and witness” of abuse survivors, linking them to martyrs such as the Korean saint Andrew Kim Taegon, whose feast fell on Sept. 20, and Polish priest Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko.

“The courage and witness of so many survivors and their families and their deep concern that others are not harmed in a similar way should be recognized and welcomed. We give thanks to God for their witness and their presence among us,” he said. 

“In some unexpected way, they are writing the next chapter in the history of those who suffer for the faith. They take their place among the courageous witnesses of the faith, of Andrew Kim and companions, of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko and so many others whose sufferings in the name of truth are known to God alone.”

The Warsaw meeting opened with an address by Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, president of the Polish bishops’ conference, who said that the volume of incidents from Central and Eastern Europe “astonishes” the Vatican’s doctrinal office, which oversees clerical abuse cases.

“New tragedies are being uncovered, and the number of cases coming from our region in recent years to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith astonishes this experienced institution,” he said.

He described the steps that the Polish Church had taken in response to a series of abuse scandals, highlighting the bishops’ appointment of Archbishop Wojciech Polak as their delegate for the protection of children and youth, and the creation of the St. Joseph Foundation supporting abuse survivors.

Archbishop Gądecki also noted that the Church had established the role of a “guardian” for accused and convicted clergy.

“We also recognize that clergy accused of sexual abuse — also when convicted — fall into a loneliness that creates a frustration that is dangerous to the accused or convicted priest, as well as to his potential victims,” he explained. 

“That is why we have created the role of the guardian of accused or convicted clergy to supervise these individuals, to require them to comply with all restrictions imposed, and to support them in moments of depression or despair.”

He explained that lay people had created an organization called Wounded in the Church providing a hotline for victims and access to therapists and lawyers.

“I mention these people and institutions to show the magnitude of the effort made by the Church in Poland, and also to thank those who have done much good in this area over the years,” he said. 

“We take to heart the call of the Holy Father Francis not to care first of all about the image of the institution, about the ‘external side of the cup and bowl,’ but first of all about the good of the victims.”

But he added: “There is also the danger that all these actions will lull our sense of responsibility into the belief that, after all, we are already doing so much for this cause.” 

“However, coming into contact with the tragedy of so many people who have been wronged, as I was able to experience personally when listening to a number of people before the Vatican summit in 2019, reveals that in the face of the enormity of the wounds, many efforts remain insufficient.” 

Pope Francis sent a video message to participants in the Warsaw meeting in which he urged leaders to put the welfare of victims ahead of the Church’s reputation. 

“Our expressions of sorrow must be converted into concrete pathways of reform to both prevent further abuse and to give confidence to others that our efforts will bring about real and reliable change,” he said.

“I encourage you to listen to the cry of the victims and to dedicate yourselves, with each other and with society in a broader sense, in these important discussions because they truly touch the future of the Church in Central and Eastern Europe — not only the Church’s future, but the hearts of Christians as well. This is our responsibility.”

Speaking on Sept. 20, the Czech philosopher and theologian Monsignor Tomáš Halík said that clerical abuse was one aspect of a profound crisis in the Church today. He pointed to several root causes in the post-communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, including clericalism, triumphalism, and the abuse of power. Only thoroughgoing reform can overcome the crisis, he said.

Canon law professor Myriam Wijlens stressed the need for bishops to take a responsible approach to abuse cases. She noted that in the past some focused more on the Church’s reputation than victims’ welfare, causing a crisis of trust and a loss of moral authority.

Sept. 21 was dedicated to the theological implications of the abuse crisis. Polish priest Father Grzegorz Strzelczyk said that theological reflection was an essential element of the Church’s response to clerical abuse, alongside legal, psychological, and spiritual approaches.

He underlined that the Church can only be credible if, in the face of great evil, it is capable of repentance leading to an authentic and profound change in people.

He also called for a renewed theology of ecclesiastical governance, so that the Church does not behave like a corporation preoccupied with its image.

On the final day, Archbishop Wojciech Polak, the Primate of Poland, addressed the conference, calling for a comprehensive response to abuse, involving psychologists, therapists, psychiatrists, and theologians.

He said during a closing briefing that “without real cooperation, we will continue to struggle with a clerical situation in which we run the risk that some will remain silent about these issues and not feel that this is a matter for the whole Church.”

Concluding his homily on Sept. 20, Cardinal O’Malley said: “So, we pray to God so that, in God’s own wise ways, these sufferings may be the seeds of a more resilient, a more loving and a more faithful Church, humbly recognizing its faults and steadfastly committed to seeking justice and reconciliation with those who have been harmed.” 

“It is only by working courageously to bring justice and healing to the victims that we ourselves can be healed.”