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.
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.
Given the difficult work American bishops have done to address sexual abuse, it makes sense that O'Malley offered a response to the Pope. But his statement was certainly outside the norm for American bishops in the modern era.
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In the Church's long history, criticism from bishops aimed at the Pope is not uncommon. But contemporary critique from American bishops is usually far less direct and far more veiled than O'Malley's statement. His statement may prove exceptional: a singular correction on a unique issue. Or it may have pave the way for other kinds of statements.
O'Malley's concern was likely shared by other American bishops, but, since Pope Francis has apologized, it seems unlikely that there will be more statements from American bishops on this issue.
But other significant issues are looming.
This year, the Pope will lead a synod on vocations and young people, where some expect that clerical celibacy may be an issue for discussion. And during this year, the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, some predict debate on the encyclical's interpretation.
Humanae Vitae, especially, is an issue that the bishops of the United States have stressed over the past few decades. Several American bishops have long-standing affiliation with natural family planning apostolates, and, especially since the 2012 HHS mandate, the USCCB itself has invested in a pastoral emphasis on the teachings of Humanae Vitae. If there was any perception that those teachings were at risk of being de-emphasized, American bishops might view that as a bridge too far, as O'Malley did in this case.
And, given the work the bishops have done to promote priestly vocations over the past twenty years, they could be similarly concerned if they felt that Rome might give conflicting signals about clerical celibacy.