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Talking with Cardinal O'Malley

On Wednesday I was part of a panel discussion on the occasion of Pope Francis's one-year anniversary, featuring Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, moderated by Ken Woodward, and hosted by the American Bible Society. It was really more of a group interview than a discussion -- after Cardinal O'Malley spoke about the spiritual side of Francis's papacy, the other panelists, Matt Malone of America and Rusty Reno of First Things, and I took turns asking him questions but didn't talk much to each other (not onstage, anyway).

If you were there, thank you! I spoke to a lot of audience members afterward and truly enjoyed meeting you all. For those who couldn't make it, if I find out about a recording or a transcript of the event, I will certainly let you know. In the meantime I am grateful to Beth Griffin's report for Catholic News Service for capturing the highlights.

The Cardinal, as one of the eight men named by Pope Francis to his personal advisory council, is very well positioned to give an insider's view of Francis's plans. You probably won't be surprised to learn that he was, for the most part, too discreet to do so. I put to him some of the questions that were on my mind and yours: I noted that many people, including myself, were disappointed with the pope's recent remarks on the sex-abuse crisis in that he did not make any reference to the question of accountability for bishops and administrators who mishandled cases of abuse, despite the role that lack of accountability has played in the scandal and in damaging the church's credibility. So, I asked Cardinal O'Malley, do you have any sense of whether that issue is on the pope's radar (I think that's how I put it), and what he might plan to do about it? His answer, as Griffin transcribes it:

The pope is anxious to launch a committee for child protection, which is coming soon, and has recently spent a lot of time on the abuse issue, Cardinal O'Malley said. "His love for people and his sense of God's mercy is something that energizes everything he does and he brings that also to the way he looks at the sex abuse crisis."

The cardinal acknowledged he is "trying to be of service to the Holy Father in this area" because he has more experience than the other cardinal advisers.

That last bit was in response to a follow-up question from me about whether the pope would be asking O'Malley for advice about who should serve on that committee. Anyway, Griffin did not leave out any significant detail that I can recall. The question of accountability was left largely unaddressed, although it's possible to read the cardinal's reference to love and mercy as a hint that we shouldn't be holding our breath waiting for Francis to start firing people.

I also asked whether the cardinal had any sense of what concrete plans the pope might have to act on his intention, which he has expressed in interviews several times, to give women a broader role in decision-making and leadership in the church.

Griffin again:

The cardinal also said upcoming changes in the structures of Vatican departments and pontifical councils would likely open new posts for women. "Once the decisions are made about what the structure is going to look like, I think the Holy Father will be looking to place women in the structure that's being contemplated. The Holy Father is very anxious to do that," Cardinal O'Malley said.

And, finally, I asked what one thing he felt the pope should prioritize to ensure that his program of reform doesn't get rolled back as soon as his papacy is over. He didn't name a specific thing, but...

Cardinal O'Malley said it would be difficult for successive popes to move backward from the changes Pope Francis is making in the Curia, including greater transparency and professionalism in the way the financial resources of the church are used for mission.

I think (and hope) he's right about that; what Francis has done so far will be difficult to undo. His intention to make church leadership truly collegial will take time to put into practice, but he's moving very clearly and deliberately toward that goal, and I assume one reason he's not moving any faster is because he wants the changes to last.

I'm not so alarmed about the "celebrity" that surrounds this pope, or worried about the end of the "honeymoon" (other matters that came up during the panel), because I think the things the pope has done that so fascinate the media are also slowly dismantling the preexisting cult of celebrity -- or clericalism, or monarchy -- that surrounds the papacy. It's fascinating to see the pope riding in a not-so-fancy car, or calling people directly, or living somewhere other than the "papal apartments" -- but only the first time. His successor, many years from now I hope, will not stun the world or provide easy copy by doing those things. It would be a pope who set about replacing all those barriers and removing himself from the midst of the people who would be news. In short, I still think Francis knows what he's doing. On the matter of restoring credibility in the wake of the sex-abuse crisis, however, we'll just have to wait and see.

I am not too discreet to repeat a conversation I had with O'Malley after the panel. (Clearly, I will never be a bishop.) When Ken introduced the cardinal, he mentioned that, when he was called in to succeed Bernard Law in the Archdiocese of Boston, O'Malley sold the archbishop's mansion and found less luxurious digs for himself -- a positively Franciscan choice in all senses of the word. After the event was over, O'Malley noted that he had done so because the archdiocese was in such dire straits financially (it had reached a $90 million settlement with victims of sex abuse), and that property was a providential way to pay those bills. So I asked him whether he's concerned that Pope Francis might decide to go ahead and sell the Vatican if he finds out how much the Archdiocese of Boston made on the sale of that mansion.

O'Malley smiled and said, "Well...I sold it to the Jesuits!"

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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I remember a tour I had of the Gesu in Rome with a knowledgeable priest.  As I gazed slackjawed at the luxurious surroundings, he told me the old joke--the Holy Name on top of the main altar stands for Iesuitae Habebunt Satis ("the Jesuits had enough").

How disappointing - it seems that the Cardinal is implying that what so many fear is true - Francis will do absolutely nothing at all to hold bishops accountable and responsible for protecting sexual predators. 

Must be a Franciscan thing - The Cardinal's residence in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia (on Cardinal and City Line Avenues) was sold recently to the Jesuits at St. Joseph's University.

Well, O'Malley knows how to be a spokesman: make hopeful-sounding noises that say little and commit to nothing. But so far, that's also what the main man is doing. Maybe neither one knows yet what is coming.

Still holding out hope that Francis will act decisively with the bishops roles and function in the cover-up as well as other areas, if gently and more slowly than so many of us would wish.

Listening to Cardinal O'Malley has grown steaadily more disappointing however.


In the intetest of accuracy neither Cdls. O'Malley or Chaput sold the Cardinals' residences to the Jesuits. O'Malley sold his to Boston College and Cahput his to St. Joseph's University.  Jesuit colleges and universities have been separately incorporated for a good long while now.  The Jesuits do not own them so those properties were not sold to the Jesuits.

Thank you, Allen, but in the interest of a good joke the residences were sold to the Jesuits.

Congratulations, Mollie! I am sorry that I couldn't make it, but it sounds like a lively exchange. Thank you for holding up the honor of Commonweal. 

A journalist has more fun than a bishop any day!

It's disappointing that he didn't directly answer the question about accountability for bishops who covered up.  I can't help thinking that's because such a thing will never even be considered.  The stuff about jobs for women is also pretty vague.  I'd like to think the best of Cardinal O'Malley as an advisor to the pope but I feel he's too conservative  ... he refused to attend a Boston College commencement because Enda Kenny was speaking, and he wouldn't let Hemut Schuller speak at any church in Boston. 

Just because O'Malley has his limitations does not mean that Francis will follow his lead. There is a big ocean between Boston and Rome. Now that Francis is there.

Count me as someone who remains delighted with Pope Francis. I've just re-read "The Joy of the Gospel." None of his critics have said anything anywhere nearly so relevant to the Church's (that's all of us) responsibility to serve the poor.

It's not just the job of Pope Francis to haul bishops to accountability. I'm not looking for Innocent III. I want other bishops to speak up. Their clergy too. Faulty bishops have natural consequences to their actions. We don't need a superhero. Just some spine.


Repotproblemst noralyping in yur boxes here

It would be good if other clergy spoke up about the bishops who covered up sex abuse.  There was that letter signed by 58 priests asking that Bernard Law step down ... ...

In a display of defiance, 58 priests from the Boston Archdiocese have sent a letter to Cardinal Bernard Law, demanding that he resign.  "While this is obviously a difficult request, we believe in our hearts that this is a necessary step that must be taken if healing is to come to the archdiocese," the letter stated. "The priests and people of Boston have lost confidence in you as their spiritual leader." ...

But the pope needs to do this himself too - he can't be the leader we all hope for if he doesn't actually lead.

Here is the letter with the list of signataries:

Twelve years later, I wonder what became of them? Did they suffer any adverse consequences from their protest?


There were threats that they would. I'm not sure what happened, though.

Mollie --

Thank you for speaking up so clearly.  Todd is right --  other bishops and the clergy need to start speaking up.  Maybe  the priests' silence has led Francis to think that the laity is exaggerating the damage that has been done to the children and their families.  Maybe next time Cdl. O'Malley should be asked if Francis knows that a number of victims have killed themselves.

Cardinal O'Malley doesn't impress me much.  I put a respectful comment on his blog about the need to remove the worst of the bishops.  It never appeared there, though some people's approving comments do go through.


Thanks for posting a link to the letter.  I recognized three of the Jesuits on the list of signatories.  One of them, Roger Haught SJ, did get censored while B16 was pope. I recall that Francis Clooney wrote about this at In All Things ...  ... but I don't know if it was related to the letter.

sorry, can't seem to make the link work  ... ... The Silencing of Roger Haught, SJ (2009)

It seems to me that there are some questions to be answered in order that what needs to be done be properly formulated (about accountability/child abuse):

(1) What are the things that are supposed to happen, and where are those things documented?  Until we know the answers to those questions we are all shooting in the dark.

(2) Who were the people that were supposed to do the things that were supposed to be done, and where is that documented?

(3) Following the answers to those questions, what things that were supposed to be done, weren't?  And, who were the people who didn't do what they were supposed to do?  (Including  cardinals, bishops, and, yes, the Holy Father)

(4) Having determined (1), (2), and (3) above, what ought to be done now?

I kind of think going through the above process would be similar to herding and disciplining a bunch of angry cats (and I love cats), but how will these putrid scandals ever be resolved and the guilty parties suitably delt with unless we do?

Mary, Glory of Israel, pray for us.

Bob S. --

It will take some of your time, but you can answer your questions by beginning at the BishopAccountability online archive.  It includes court papers, articles from various local newspapers, and articles by BA writers.  You can start with articles about individual bishops ("Files of the Bishops"), then check out some infamous cases ("Major Accounts of the Crisis").  You can also search the less infamous, cases by the priests/brothers/nuns' names.

Major Accounts of the Crisis - Documenting the Catholic Sexual Abuse ... - Documenting the Catholic Sexual Abuse ...

"Pope Francis announced the initial members of a commission to advise him on sex abuse policy Saturday, tapping lay and religious experts — and an Irish woman assaulted as a child by a priest — to start plotting the commission’s tasks and priorities. "

Although I critique Cardinal O'Malley, I am pleased to see he is on this commission. I believe he will both learn and assist others. And he has credibility with  the more conservative members of the hierarchy, I would guess.

Keeping hope alive that real change is coming, somehow. An improvement in atmospherics still lifts one's spirit. 

Re: O'Malley, he was the one who pressed Benedict to meet with survivors on his US visit, but his actual record is disquieting, as this fact sheet by indicates:



4. Troubling questions remain about certain accused priests cleared by O’Malley.


Rev. Jerome Gillespie was accused in 2005 of soliciting oral sex from a woman and her 12-year-old daughter. Although most charges against him were dismissed, the priest agreed to “sufficient facts” to a charge of annoying and accosting a member of the opposite sex, and a judge ordered him to be evaluated for sex offender treatment and to have no contact with minors for two years without first disclosing his case to guardians.


In 2008, it was discovered that O’Malley had quietly returned Gillespie to ministry. After SNAP publicized Gillespie’s reinstatement, O’Malley again withdrew the priest from ministry.


Rev. Thomas Curran was removed from ministry by Cardinal Law in 2002 after a convicted child rapist accused Curran and Rev. Paul Shanley of raping him repeatedly as a boy. In 2007, Cardinal O’Malley announced that Curran had been cleared of all charges and assigned “permanent disability” status. In 2010, another victim of Curran came forward, and the priest was placed on leave again.


Rev. James Power was accused in 1993 of sodomizing a 13-year-old boy in 1980. In 1996, the

archdiocese settled with the victim for $35,000. In 2002, Cardinal Law removed Power from ministry and a second victim came forward. The priest’s personnel file, made public in 2002, included an unsigned note, dated August 27, 1993, saying "100% positive other kids." In 2009,


Cardinal O’Malley announced the archdiocese was "unable to substantiate“ either allegation and that Power was removed from leave and assigned senior priest status.


5. As bishop of Fall River MA, O’Malley was accused by the local prosecutor of concealing offenders’ names until the statute of limitations had expired.


As Bishop O’Malley was leaving the diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, in 2002, the local prosecutor, Bristol County District Attorney Paul Walsh, took the extraordinary step of publicly rebuking the bishop for a decade-long delay in submitting to him the names of 21 accused priests.


“Why didn’t he release these names to us 10 years ago?” the DA said. By the time O’Malley gave DA Walsh the priests’ names in 2002, the time window for prosecuting had closed for all but one of the cases. 

Thank you Ann.  I mean to wade into this for my own sanity ( if, well, I am sane).  I can't stand the way this has all unfolded over the decades: In bits and pieces, with very few clearly identified procedures, a fog of misinformation by pathetic, bland company men,similar to Adolf Eichmann.

That Cardinal O'Malley, who seems a good-hearted man, should have behaved as he did -- or, rather, should have *not* taken action when he should have, is so perpelxing.  Why didn't he?   One has to wonder how the clerical mindset which at times covered-up by inaction came to be developed in a church which claims to value reason so  much -- if anything is unreasonable, it's allowing children to be victimized.

Looking back at the many dozens, if not hundreds, of seminarians whom I knew in graduate school philosophy classes at Catholic University,  I remember being surprised at how they didn't challenge our teachers.  Oh, they asked questions, and occassionally a kid would argue, but not very often.  This passivity was so foreign to my experience as a student in a non-sectarian college that their passivity was quite noticeable.  It seems they were trained to be passive.  

When the Commission is looking at how to change the clerical culture I think that they should look carefully at whether or not the seminarians are taught to challenge authority when necessary.  Jesuits' formation does seem to value argumentation -- but only with their theological and philosophical opponents, not with the Church, though there do seem to be  exceptions.  More Jesuits seem to end up censured by the CDF than members of other orders.  Anyway, maybe Pope Francis, S. J., can be a help there -- he might insist that seminiarians learn to talk back when necessary.

The Samaritan woman argues with Jesus. Jacob wrestles with the angel. God values argumentation. He likes enquiring minds who only yield after an honest fight, who are won over completely once they are won. Censure is only the tool of those who worry that truth might not be on their side, or who are afraid that they might not know how to convince. 


I was also at the event last Wednesday - in the spirit of Francis, they took mercy on me and let me in despite my not having pre-registered - and was similarly frustrated at Cardinal O'Malley's lack of openness (I suppose he can be partly forgiven for not offering more substantive commentary about the pope's plans vis-a-vis the abuse commission though, since he was probably afraid of accidentally spilling the beans about his own appointment before the news became official). 

I thought it was interesting how Rusty Reno seemed to catch O'Malley making two contradictory arguments at once, namely: 1) that Francis is changing the tone of the Church and is making it less strident and less focused on culture war issues, and 2) that the Church was never really that focused on culture war issues in the first place, and that it's really the secular media that can't stop talking about them.

I think Michael Brendan Dougherty noted this apparent paradox after John Allen published his interview with O'Malley a few weeks ago, and I wonder if the cardinal perceives the inconsistency. If so, why does he keep repeating both talking points?


Right, Claire, and there's also that amazing passage in Genesis 18, where Abraham bargains with God over the fate of Sodom, getting him to agree to spare the city if at first fifty righteous people can be found in it and at last if there are ten. A steep reduction, although not quite steep enough.

But the fascinating and funny part is that, after obtaining the initial concession at fifty, Abraham proceeds with wonderfully expressed trepidation about offending God as he asks about smaller and smaller numbers of righteous. I'm left with the impression that he would have gone all the way to one, if God had not just upped and left. Some of that story I am not sure how to interpret, but Abraham clearly wasn't deterred by fear from challenging even the highest authority.

John, I agree, those dialogues are fascinating. Every sentence is a gem.

Speaking of talking back, there's the story of St. Teresa of Avila who was travelling by donkey to another city to do God's work.  The donkey kept stumbling and throwing her down on the road.  She appealed to God to make the donkey stop throwing her down.  God replied with a smile, "That's the way I treat all my friends".  She replied testily, "No wonder you have so few!"

Yes, the lack of any forward movement on the question of accountability is deeply depressing. But in general, what is the comomon clerical attitude towards accountabilty? It seems to be entirely an upwards accountability: as long as I can keep my boss (bishop, cardinal, pope, you name it) happy, I've done my job, with little or no regard as to whether I should also be accountable to those hierarchically below me, and who are committed to my charge.

A slight exaggeration, perhaps, but pretty slight. According to the most recent issue (that I've got) of the Tablet, the bishops of the UK have been told to keep their mouths shut about the answers they got from and gave to the Vatican questionnaire on the family. The Tablet itself has pointed out how stupid, not to say immoral, this is, and a couple of the bishops have broken ranks to call for openness (one of them, Bp. Tom Burns of Menevia, in Wales, has a piece in the magazine to this effect). But the general attitude of his brother bishops appears to be to keep their heads down and their noses clean, at least when seen from above.

Maybe something better will come -- let's hope.

I found these words in Mollies summary of the panel discussion with Cardinal O'Malley significant:

The cardinal also said upcoming changes in the structures of Vatican departments and pontifical councils would likely open new posts for women. "Once the decisions are made about what the structure is going to look like, I think the Holy Father will be looking to place women in the structure that's being contemplated. The Holy Father is very anxious to do that," Cardinal O'Malley said.

And, finally, I asked what one thing he felt the pope should prioritize to ensure that his program of reform doesn't get rolled back as soon as his papacy is over. He didn't name a specific thing, but...

Cardinal O'Malley said it would be difficult for successive popes to move backward from the changes Pope Francis is making in the Curia, including greater transparency and professionalism in the way the financial resources of the church are used for mission.


I think the Cardinal's words here are significant. For all who want to see quicker action on significant issues of concern -- accountability of bishops in the sex abuse area, greater roles for women in the Church, etc. -- the Cardinal indicates the Pope is moving slowly so that the changes and structures introduced will last. I, for one, am very heartened by the changes made so far, and am not worried that the pace is too slow. The real danger is going too fast and making changes that have deep flaws and could be easily overturned by successive Popes and an even revised Curia.


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