Absent the will of bishops themselves, no new procedure or structure can actually prevent a repetition. There is, indeed, a thin line between building a clear and effective process, and building a culture of bureaucratic proceduralism which protects everyone but those who bring allegations forward- a lesson the Church has learned in abuse scandals around the world.
To the Chilean bishops, rather than calling only for more processes, Francis urged that bishops "generate a culture of care which permeates our ways of relating, praying, thinking, of living authority."
When then-Archbishop McCarrick was appointed to lead the Archdiocese of Washington in 2000, Father Boniface Ramsey contacted the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, to report the allegations of McCarrick's misconduct with seminarians he had heard from his own seminary students, the Washington Post reported.
Although he put his concerns in writing, at the explicit request of the nuncio, no action was taken and no one knows where that letter ended up.
Sources have told CNA that Ramsey's experience was not unique, and other complaints about sexual misconduct also went seemingly unheard at the nunciature during Montalvo's tenure.
Fifteen years later, after seeing McCarrick at the funeral of Cardinal Egan, Ramsey wrote to Cardinal O'Malley, again relating what he knew about "a form of sexual abuse/harassment/intimidation or maybe simply high-jinks as practiced by Theodore Cardinal McCarrick with his seminarians and perhaps other young men."
Cardinal O'Malley's statement explains what happened next:
"Recent media reports also have referenced a letter sent to me from Rev. Boniface Ramsey, O.P. in June of 2015, which I did not personally receive. In keeping with the practice for matters concerning the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, at the staff level the letter was reviewed and determined that the matters presented did not fall under the purview of the Commission or the Archdiocese of Boston, which was shared with Fr. Ramsey in reply."
Fr. Ramsey's letter was, as Cardinal O'Malley explains, handled according to proper procedures. The Commission is not a legal department charged with prosecuting allegations, nor did the allegations concern the Archdiocese of Boston. But while the response was technically correct, to some Catholics it seemed to illustrate how a response can be procedurally correct and yet pastorally, and perhaps morally, negligent.
Cardinal O'Malley's responsibility as a member of the pope's abuse commission is, in part, to foster and promote a culture of responsibility towards accusations of sexual abuse and misconduct.
In light of that, many Catholics are asking why his office would not immediately forward the letter to the competent Vatican department, or at the least bring it to the cardinal's personal attention, rather than offer a response that might be characterized as "not our department"?
It is worth noting that Cardinal O'Malley said he did not "personally receive" the letter from Fr. Ramsey reporting allegations. Some critics say this response looks like the cardinal distancing himself from his office's systems and procedures, while at the same time claiming that more systems and procedures will be the remedy.
All bishops get voluminous amounts of mail, and because of O'Malley's position, he likely gets more than his fair share. Some of that is hate mail, or incomprehensible rambling, but some of it is important. The cardinal's office obviously needs procedures to assess that correspondence.
But Cardinal O'Malley has discretion over inter-office mail procedures in the chancery of the Archdiocese of Boston; nothing stops him from ensuring he does "personally receive" all letters making allegations of sexual abuse.
The cardinal has not indicated that he will personally review all such communiques in the future.
A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston declined to respond to questions from CNA, referring a reporter to the cardinal's July 24 statement.
In the past 15 years, the Church has learned that victims of abuse, and all Catholics wearied by constant scandal in the Church, do not ordinarily want to hear about a new charter, tribunal, or special procedure. They generally say they want to know that their bishops hear them, and that their bishops care enough to act.
After Chilean victims of abuse met with Francis earlier this year, they praised the pope for listening, for being empathetic, for taking responsibility, and for promising change. They did not seem to be calling for more prudent managers or more efficient processes. They were calling instead for shepherds with the moral courage to be their brother's keepers.
Whether O'Malley's answer will satisfy remains to be seen. How the USCCB, the Archbishops of Washington and Newark, and other prominent figures will respond to the crisis McCarrick has begun also remains to be seen.
Ed Condon is a canon lawyer and worked as Catholic News Agency's Washington DC editor until December 2020.