The criticism was a response to remarks Pope Francis made about a Chilean bishop, Juan Barros, who is accused of covering up acts of sexual abuse for his one-time friend, the disgraced Fr. Fernando Karadima. Barros has claimed to be innocent, and Francis has been a staunch defender. In 2015, he appointed him to lead the Diocese of Osorno, and shortly thereafter, he told an official at the Chilean bishops’ conference that opposition to the appointment was “silliness.”
“Think with your head, and do not be led away by the nose by the leftists, who are the ones who put this thing together,” the Pope told Deacon Jaime Coiro during a brief meeting in May 2015 at the Vatican.
Karadima was a prominent figure in Chile, and many Chileans have been critical of the Vatican for the handling of his case. Although he was found guilty of sexual abuse by a Vatican tribunal, he was not laicized because of his advanced age. Before Francis arrived in Chile, there were large protests in the country, and several churches were vandalized. The matter of Barros’ appointment was a part of the conversation.
On Friday, Francis told a reporter “the day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, I’ll speak. There is not one shred of proof against him. It’s all calumny. Is that clear?”
Francis may have meant otherwise, and Barros’ situation is complicated, but the Pope was largely understood to be accusing Barros’ accusers, some of whom are Karadima’s victims, of calumny-- slander or detraction.
For many, this was a bridge too far.
O’Malley’s statement called the Pope’s remarks a “source of great pain” for abuse survivors.
“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,” O’Malley’s statement read.
On his return flight from South America yesterday, the Pope apologized for his remarks, and tried to clarify them, while continuing to express support for Barros.
O’Malley’s statement praised the Pope’s support for abuse survivors, and it can hardly be called “speaking ill” of Francis. But it was certainly a direct criticism of his comments.
It is not surprising O’Malley was unhappy with the Pope’s remarks. O’Malley took over the Archdiocese of Boston in 2003, after the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law, who was widely reported to have been negligent in his response to allegations of sexual abuse among the clergy. Boston was the epicenter of the “Long Lent of 2002,” which began the sexual abuse scandal in the United States, and O’Malley, arriving in the midst of the fervor, bore the brunt.
By many accounts, O’Malley handled that responsibility admirably. He met with victims, engaged in complicated litigation, dealt with canonical and civil trials of priests, and, to his chagrin, oversaw the closure of some Boston parishes.
He became, in many respects, the face of the American Church’s response to the sexual abuse crisis.
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But O’Malley was not alone. Since 2002, the leaders of the Catholic Church have worked, with a great deal of actual unity, to ensure safe Catholic environments for children and vulnerable adults. The 2002 documents guiding that work have led bishops to establish lay-led review boards, to implement background checks and abuse-prevention trainings, and to establish offices for child protection in their dioceses.
While some bishops have expressed concern about “mission creep” among child protection professionals, or advocated for a stronger stated correlation between homosexuality and some acts of sexual abuse, the bishops have been unified in recognizing a problem, and working to root it out.
Most American bishops have had the difficult experience of meeting with victims of clerical sexual abuse, and apologizing for their suffering.
The issue has not been characterized by ideological division. The current chairman of the bishops’ committee on child and youth protection, Bishop Ed Burns of Dallas, is widely perceived to be hard-working, non-political, and collaborative. Most observers would say that those adjectives describe the character of the bishops’ approach to child-protection.
And, for the most part, their efforts have had effect. Sexual abuse prevention policies have largely worked to screen potential predators from among the clergy, and the Church in the US has begun to rebuild its credibility on the issue of sexual abuse.
O’Malley’s statement emphasized the Church’s concern for victims of sexual abuse, and its commitment to safe environments. While his concern for Karadima’s victims rang true, the statement may have also been motivated by a concern that the Pope’s remarks would be a step backward for the public credibility of the Church in the US, which has taken many painful steps in order to move forward.