Cardinal O’Malley Speaks Clearly on Father Rupnik’s Art, Telling Vatican: Say ‘No More!’

COMMENTARY: When the Boston cardinal speaks on the subject of sexual abuse in the Church, everyone should listen.

Cardinal Seán O’Malley
Cardinal Seán O’Malley (photo: Edward Pentin / National Catholic Register)

Consider it one last signal service from one who has spent several decades serving the Church in the sewer of the sexual-abuse crisis.

Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, wrote June 26 to the heads of all dicasteries in the Roman Curia, advising that “pastoral prudence would prevent displaying artwork in a way that could imply either exoneration or a subtle defense” of alleged perpetrators of abuse “or indicate indifference to the pain and suffering of so many victims of abuse.”

In genteel Curial style, the letter was sent to everyone to disguise that it had an audience of one: Paolo Ruffini, head of the Vatican communications office. Just days earlier in Atlanta, Ruffini gave a bewildering defense of his department’s continued use of Father Marko Rupnik’s artwork on its website.

The Register’s editorial Tuesday took issue with his “dicastery’s conspicuous use of Father Rupnik’s art [because] whatever the motivations inside the Vatican, [it] appears to the outside world as shockingly tone-deaf and indefensible in light of the Church’s long struggle with the sexual-abuse crisis, including the abuse of adults.”

Ruffini’s views — and Ruffini’s judgment — have been subject to savage criticism. No Roman official has yet come to his defense.

Now, Cardinal O’Malley has pronounced his judgment regarding Father Rupnik’s work in Vatican publications, electronic or otherwise: No more!

Despite Cardinal O’Malley speaking for a great many observers, the Dicastery for Communication used Father Rupnik’s art Friday for the saint of the day.

When Cardinal O’Malley speaks on this subject, everyone has to listen. Even the Holy Father.

Recall that, in 2018, Pope Francis visited Chile, the most disastrous papal trip in recent memory. In a country reeling from a massive sexual-abuse scandal involving one of its most prominent priests, the Holy Father made it worse with his callous comments, sparking an international uproar.

In an exceedingly rare move for a senior cardinal, Cardinal O’Malley publicly rebuked Pope Francis:

“It is understandable that Pope Francis’ statements yesterday in Santiago, Chile, were a source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy or any other perpetrator. Words that convey the message ‘if you cannot prove your claims then you will not be believed’ abandon those who have suffered reprehensible criminal violations of their human dignity and relegate survivors to discredited exile.”

That did not entirely put out the conflagration the Holy Father had started in Chile, but did bring some measure of comfort. No other cardinal had the credibility to speak as Cardinal O’Malley did. That credibility is again evident in the Father Rupnik affair.

Seán O’Malley was appointed a bishop 40 years ago this month, himself then only 40 years old. He began service as the bishop of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. In 1992, he was transferred to Fall River, Massachusetts, just as news was exploding about the revolting former priest James Porter, one of America’s most notorious priest abusers.

Ten years later, as the crisis gripped the entire Church in the U.S., then-Bishop O’Malley was sent to the Diocese of Palm Beach, Florida, where two successive bishops had resigned due to committing sexual abuse. He was thought to be the only one who could bring healing to victims and comfort to a suffering local Church.

But precisely because Cardinal O’Malley was the only one, the fireman was brought back to Boston less than a year later, as the venerable archdiocese was an inferno. For more than 20 years, Cardinal O’Malley, a Capuchin friar, has fulfilled in Boston what St. Francis first heard in Assisi: Repair My Church!

Over his years in Fall River, Palm Beach and Boston, Cardinal O’Malley has spent countless hours with victims. It is possible that no bishop has spent more time with them.

It was that experience that made Cardinal O’Malley determined that Pope Benedict XVI would meet with victims on his visit to the United States in 2008. Now, such meetings are a routine part of papal visits; but it was then a novelty and ran into strong opposition. Cardinal O’Malley persevered, and Pope Benedict XVI entrusted him with organizing the meeting.

Benedict created O’Malley a cardinal in 2006. When Pope Francis was looking for a head of his new pontifical commission on sexual abuse, there was still only one fireman. Cardinal O’Malley was given the job, alongside his extra duties of serving in the Holy Father’s inner cabinet, the “council of cardinals.”

When Pope Francis set Chile on fire, the fireman did his duty. The Holy Father made Cardinal O’Malley pay a price for that. At the Vatican summit on sexual abuse in 2019 — the McCarrick revelations had come the summer immediately after the Chile trip — Cardinal O’Malley was sidelined, and the summit organization was entrusted to Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago.

Cardinal O’Malley would have had every reason to resign then, but he dutifully agreed to continue serving in the sewer, devoted to helping victims healing from, and the overall prevention of, sexual abuse in the Church.

It was an increasingly difficult brief to hold, as Pope Francis himself handled several high-profile cases in a curious manner.

In his commentary on Ruffini’s comments on Father Rupnik, Christopher Altieri of Catholic World Report argued that his remarks indicated the mindset behind a litany of cases: Father Mauro Inzoli, Msgr. Battista Ricca, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, Bishop Juan Barros, Cardinal Francisco Errazuriz, Cardinals Ricardo Ezzati and Philippe Barbarin, Archbishop Gustavo Zanchetta, Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard, and Father Rupnik. Ruffini’s remarks did set the house on fire — again. The fireman had to come forth — again — to protect the Church from its own leaders.

The Rupnik affair is not over, not least because his canonical case has yet to be resolved. The debate on his artistic installations in chapels, churches and shrines will continue, likely being resolved with local solutions. But Cardinal O’Malley has ended the most baffling part of the debate: the continuing use of Father Rupnik’s art online and in print.

Cardinal O’Malley turns 80 on Saturday, the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul. His retirement from all official duties will follow soon. A new fireman will have to be found.

Cardinal O’Malley’s letter to Ruffini et al. was dated June 26, 2024. Twenty-five years earlier, in Fall River, he ordained five men to the priesthood on that date, including Father Roger Landry, known to readers of the Register, and Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk of the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

After his first six years in Fall River, marred by the Porter aftermath, that ordination was a happy day for the still-young bishop. The future looked to be brighter that day; perhaps he could move away from the immediate ugliness of sexual abuse.

It was not to be. Instead, he would be asked to give the rest of his life to the Church’s response to an historic scandal. In his final days in office, he has done just that, once again, in speaking clearly on Father Rupnik’s art.

Cardinal O’Malley has earned a bit of rest. If only those in Rome had not made him work so hard.