Rebuilding From the Ruins: Cardinal O'Malley on the 2002 Boston Sex-Abuse Scandal and Aftermath

In a two-part interview, the Boston archbishop looks back on his two-decade effort to tackle a global crisis.

Cardinal Seán O’Malley
Cardinal Seán O’Malley (photo: George Martell photo)

A decade ago, the Boston clergy sexual abuse crisis engulfed the archdiocese, ultimately drawing global attention to a once-hidden scourge that has destroyed the innocence of minors, shattered families, severely damaged the credibility of Church leaders everywhere and led to an estimated $1.5 billion in settlements to American survivors.

Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley was named archbishop of Boston in 2003. He replaced Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned after the 2002 publication of archdiocesan personnel files revealed that clergy with credible allegations of child sexual abuse were reassigned to new parishes, rather than removed from ministry, and that parishioners were not warned about their history.

In a two-part interview with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond, Cardinal O’Malley discusses a range of topics, from the path to healing and spiritual reconciliation for survivors, to rebuilding the moral credibility of the Church, and penalties for bishops that neglect to protect the innocent.

When he arrived in Boston nine years ago, then-Archbishop O’Malley had already addressed clergy sexual abuse scandals in two other dioceses. In 1992, he was appointed to the nearby Diocese of Fall River, Mass., where a former Catholic priest,  James Porter,  would subsequently receive an 18- to 20-year prison sentence for sexually abusing 28 children.

Cardinal O’Malley also briefly served as the Bishop of Palm Beach, Fla., from 2002-2003, after the resignation of Bishop Anthony O’Connell, who acknowledged that he had sexually abused a teenage seminary student two decades earlier.

In 2010, when the Church in Ireland was engulfed in a clergy sexual-abuse scandal, Cardinal O’Malley was asked to assist with the apostolic visitation of a number of seminaries and dioceses there, and was named the visitor to the Archdiocese of Dublin.

In 2003, you were installed as the new archbishop of Boston, following the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law. How do you rebuild the Church from the ruins?

It was daunting at the beginning — so much hurt and anger, and such disastrous economic consequences. There was a drop-off in vocations. Everywhere we turned there was crisis and pain.

Yet there remains our firm conviction that Christ does not abandon his Church — though he did not promise it would be easy.

We saw this as a call to conversion. In my own life, it has made me focus on what is really essential — our relationship with God. Everything else in the past — all the pain and suffering — was put in a new perspective.

We spoke about “rebuilding trust,” trying 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.

Transparency has been an important part of that. We published everything about finances. We published more than any other diocese in the world.

We wanted to do that because the [issue of] money being used for sex-abuse cases was a very hot topic. I wanted to demonstrate that we were not using parish funds, parishes were not being closed to pay for the sex-abuse crisis. Instead, that money came from the sale of the bishop’s residence.

Rebuilding trust provided a framework for pastoral policies, but not everyone has agreed on the substance of those policies.

I was eager for people to understand what had happened, the policies we were putting in place, and how we would be faithful to carrying out those policies to ensure that our parishes and schools were as safe as possible for youngsters.

Pastors came to me saying, “We can’t take time out from CCD for safe-environment training when that is already happening in public schools.”

I said, “Wonderful, but let’s check and make sure it’s happening.” When they looked into it they discovered that nothing was happening in most public schools.

A lot of people resisted [the training] at first. Particularly, some people objected to asking volunteers to go through background checks. They said that was invasive, it was hard enough to get volunteers and you insulted people by asking them to do these things.

Some said it was too much like sex education. I tried to listen to everybody’s objections and tailor it to the appropriate age.

[After we implemented the training], a large number of children reported they had been abused by relatives, not priests. That opened people’s eyes. They realized we really do need to do something.

So many people did come forward to help. Just to carry out the ambitious policies took thousands of volunteers to help in the schools and CCD programs.

After your arrival, you met continuously with survivors on a regular basis. How else have you tried to reach out directly to Catholics harmed by priests?

On Ascension Thursday 2006, we began a ‘Pilgrimage of Repentance and Hope: The Novena to the Holy Spirit’ held in nine communities that experienced a history of sexual abuse. The hope was to publicly show the sorrow and contrition on the part of the community for the suffering of victims and their families, and also to invite people to come back and be part of the Church after they were alienated by the scandal.

During the course of the novena, thousands of people participated. We had prayers, Psalms, readings. I spoke, and so did some of the victims and their families. We invited [archdiocesan] priests, and large numbers came. They prayed prostrate on the floor, praying litanies, asking for forgiveness.

Afterward, many people told me that was their reason for coming back. These were parishes that had suffered so much. It was an opportunity for them to express their feelings. It was very important for the priests to be a part of it.

I encouraged them to do this in Dublin [where he led an investigation of child sexual abuse in the Church in Ireland], because I saw that it was a vehicle for healing, and while I was there, we had a service of remembrance and repentance that was very well attended and received.

During this time, what has been the experience of the vast majority of priests who are innocent of any abuse?

Typically, Catholics who were involved in the parish were supportive of their priests. But the Catholics who only came to church occasionally were much more suspicious of priests. Those who were already at one
arm’s length were now at two arms’ length.

The faithful Catholics knew how much the priests were hurting and tried to be supportive. At my installation, when I thanked the priests, there was sustained, thunderous applause. The priests themselves were surprised.

What has given you hope?

I have tried to call people to a deeper commitment to being an evangelizing Church. We cannot remain a Church of maintenance. We appointed a team to work on vocations and also to work with young adults.

When I came here, the priests were telling me to close the seminary—there were only 25 men. Now we have 70 men studying to be priests for the archdiocese, and we don’t have enough room for men from other dioceses . We have expanded the diaconate program: Instead of one class every four years, we now have a class every year.

A lot people have come forward to help the Church. Our new pastoral center is a gift from a benefactor. People have raised money for Catholic schools and churches. They say to me, “Our grandparents fleeing the famine built churches. Now what are we going to do?”

We have more chaplains in the armed services than any other diocese.

We now have a national policy of zero tolerance for priests with credible allegations of abuse, but few penalties have been imposed against negligent bishops. Going forward, should the Church establish a clear disciplinary framework for bishops who fail to protect children?

My hope is that with the very clear polices put in place, if a bishop is reckless in neglecting this, I think that’s something that demands attention on the part of the Holy See. Obviously, here in Boston, Cardinal Law did resign. The Holy See accepted his resignation.

[W]e need to deal with this issue going forward, since it has been made clear as to what the mistakes were in the past — not to repeat them.

Part of the problem in the past was that the bishops and people in general did not even suspect how much harm was being done to these children.

Why didn’t they suspect it?

Well, let’s just say they didn’t. The focus was on the perpetrator. When I went to Fall River, I went through the files of James Porter, a predator, a very sick man who abused hundreds of children.

When I went through the files, the pattern was the same. The bishop would remove him, send him to a psychiatric institution, often non-Catholic ones. The psychologist would report back and say, “He is all right now and he can be reassigned.”

They were taking the advice of these professionals who were obviously unaware that there isn’t a cure, and unaware too [that these predators] were a menace. It’s unfortunate that it didn’t dawn on the bishop sooner. Eventually, Porter was laicized.

From a review of the records in the Boston scandal, it’s clear that some people — including an auxiliary bishop and laypeople — tried but failed to get the local ordinary to permanently remove the predators. Has the scandal altered the job description for bishops?

If you can’t do difficult things, you shouldn’t t be a bishop. There are always very hard choices. That’s what I’ve told the priests ever since I came to Boston. Here every choice has been a dilemma. … You are damned if you do, or damned if you don’t.

Such as balancing the need for protecting children with the rights of priests — when an allegation is made without hard evidence?

In those cases, I have the resource of the review board, which I have always used in every diocese where I have been. I have tried to have victims and victims’ families on the review board, as well as judges, priests, and others.

That allows an independent reading. It’s also a big help when an allegation is unsubstantiated, and you want to return someone to ministry. It’s not, “the bishop says.” You can say this group of men and women, who are volunteers, and some who may not even be Catholic, concur that this person should be restored to ministry.

Regarding the issue of episcopal responsibility, a slightly different pattern has developed in Ireland, where some bishops have resigned. How would you explain that?

I can’t speak specifically, but in some cases there was an awareness of responsibility. … In the case of one bishop who resigned, there was a lot of push back. The people said, “He shouldn’t have resigned.” But he himself felt he had not done enough. Each case was different.

Some Catholics suggest that while media attention has stressed bishops’ failures to stop criminal behavior, there are other mounting problems that need effective leadership —such as the need for better catechesis — but those issues don’t get the same attention.

[There was a time when] some bishops were very seldom even seen, and had very little contact with clergy. One of my predecessors used to go to the Bahamas at Christmas and he didn’t t come back until Easter.

The bishop has to be present to his people. He has to be proactive.

At the same time, the crisis in many ways has made it more difficult to mobilize the priests here to [present Church] teaching on issues like same-sex “marriage.” Many of them were so beaten up, and they said, “You want me to talk about what?”

That whole prophetic role of the Church has been damaged by the scandal. So often when the Church does speak out on any of these topics that are difficult, people say, “Well you allowed these children to be raped, how can you say anything about this?”

I was talking to the priests’ council about assisted suicide, and I told them, “We have to reassert our prophetic role around this. It doesn’t mean you present this in a way that’s insensitive to people’s feelings when you preach on abortion — knowing there are people who have had an abortion, or on same-sex “marriage” when you have homosexual parishioners.”

In Part 2, Cardinal O’Malley addresses the John Jay Report’s controversial conclusions about the role of same-sex attraction in the clergy abuse scandal,  financial settlements and speeding up the appeals process for priests who contend that they have been falsely accused.