Clad in his Capuchin robe and with his unassuming demeanor, Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley’s deep voice was surprisingly loud and clear the first day he set foot in the Archdiocese of Boston in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal: “Repair my Church” was his battle cry.
In 2003, a year after the clergy sexual abuse crisis erupted in Boston, Cardinal O’Malley was sent by Pope St. John Paul II to help heal the wounds and sense of betrayal among the faithful.
Cardinal O’Malley immediately set aside the confrontational defensive practices of his predecessors and began meeting personally with survivors and their families. In his first month as archbishop, he settled the vast majority of claims; counseling and therapy were provided at no cost to hundreds of victims; strict rules for the handling of accusations were put in place; mandatory abuse education programs for all staff and volunteers were implemented; and children were trained to recognize abuse.
When Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI visited the United States in 2008, Cardinal O’Malley engineered an unscheduled meeting at the nunciature in Washington, D.C., between the pope and abuse victims.
But even after all he has done, Cardinal O’Malley would be the first to say that, in a sense, the abuse crisis will never be over because education, vigilance and compassion must become permanent fixtures in the Church.
Since the start of his pontificate, Pope Francis has pledged to reform the Roman Curia, and no American cardinal has been closer to him in this period than Cardinal O’Malley. As part of the small group of advisers Pope Francis put in place shortly after his election, the cardinal has been instrumental in providing the pope with substantive counsel on a wide variety of issues, including the reform of the curia and the Vatican Bank. But perhaps Cardinal O’Malley’s most lasting influence will be related to the creation of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which he heads.
At the request of his cardinal advisers — some speculate with Cardinal O’Malley’s prompting — the Holy Father created this commission to develop worldwide policies for assuring accountability and best practices regarding the handling of allegations of sexual abuse of minors by clergy.
Our Sunday Visitor’s choice of Cardinal O’Malley as one of the “2014 Catholics of the Year” for his role in the group of cardinal advisers and particularly for his involvement in the creation of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors is fitting. His profound understanding of the long-lasting harm that clergy sexual abuse has exerted on the victims, their families and the wider Church uniquely positions him to address the pope’s desire for reform.
Antonio M. Enrique is editor of The Pilot, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston.