Cardinal O’Malley Preaches Clarity in Dealing With Clerical Sex Abuse

Boston’s archbishop, a member of Pope Francis’ Commission for the Protection of Minors, said the Church’s failure to sanction bishops who enabled priests’ abusive behavior damaged its credibility.

Cardinal Sean O'Malley
Cardinal Sean O'Malley (photo: CNA)

ROME — The Church needs to have “very clear procedures” in dealing with bishops and religious superiors who have mishandled clerical sex-abuse cases “because, right now, it’s very unclear, and, as we see, it’s very open-ended,” Cardinal Sean O’Malley said.

Speaking to the Register Feb. 16, during a recess of a conference at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University, the cardinal-archbishop of Boston, who heads the newly formed Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, told the conference that the failure of the Church to punish bishops who covered up for abusers has seriously harmed its credibility in central areas, such as defending human rights, the unborn and immigrants.

The conference provided an update on the Center for Child Protection, a Church-run resource founded in 2012 aimed at providing prevention and protection against abuse. Along with an e-learning program, the center, which moved its headquarters to Rome in January of this year, will offer in 2016 a course at the Gregorian dedicated to safeguarding minors against abuse.

The Church, Cardinal O’Malley said, must lead the way by “humbly making the commitment to accountability, transparency and zero tolerance.”

Canon lawyers and theologians are reviewing proposals to present to Pope Francis on increasing the accountability of bishops and religious superiors. The proposals were developed by the commission, which comprises experts and two survivors of abuse. “We cannot fail to do all that is possible to restore our credibility,” Cardinal O’Malley said.

He said the commission is “very much focused on coming up with clear procedures which we need to represent as recommendations to the Holy Father.”

“We’re working on them right now,” he said, adding: “We think they will be [ready] very soon.”

A constant criticism of abuse victims has been that the Vatican failed to sanction bishops who covered up for abusers.

Trained psychologist and Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, who chairs the Center for Child Protection, said he does not know at this stage what accountability measures will be devised.

“It has been said over and over again and very clearly, by the cardinal now and last week, that this is an issue we have to face and do something,” he told the Register.

Father Zollner, who is also a member of the pontifical commission, said one of the aims is to ensure that it is not the Holy Father “who is always immediately put on the spot if there is any issue.” He added that “clear procedures should now be in place so that, in the case of a priest who abuses, you know what you have to do, what is the next step, to whom to refer and so forth.”

But he said it’s also necessary to know “what kind of punishment a bishop or a provincial will receive” — and others — “if they don’t follow Church law and in case they don’t follow state law.”

Asked for a timeline for the new guidelines and rules, Father Zollner said it’s impossible to say, but added that the commission has discussed the issue in depth, and Cardinal O’Malley “has brought it to the attention of the Holy Father” and other cardinals.

He stressed these proposed measures need to be adapted and implemented into the Code of Canon Law’s norms so they are “applicable to bishops’ conferences in all parts of the world.” He noted that this is especially applicable to “missionary countries because, in a certain way, they are not under [the jurisdiction of] many dicasteries of the Holy See but Propaganda Fide [the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples].”

But Father Zollner said he hopes these measures “will apply to any part of the world” as they take shape and that “the Holy See or maybe even bishops’ conferences will have to confront and pursue cases where a bishop is negligent of the Church’s law.”

The Jesuit professor stressed these measures are not being devised with regard to exceptional cases, but “a bishop who knows about an abusive priest and who, therefore, should be punished if he continues to send him to parishes to continue his work.”

Alongside implementing measures to make bishops and religious superiors more accountable in this area, the commission is also looking into improving formation of Church leaders, Father Zollner said.

Through the Center for Child Protection, the Pontifical Gregorian University, together with the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising and the University of Ulm in Germany, is trying to help improve formation of priests and thereby prevent abuse and help victims.

Pope Francis publicly endorsed the initiative at the conference, saying in a message addressed to Father Zollner that he rejoiced “for all that you are doing, and I know that this work will be fruitful.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.