Will Cardinal O'Malley's response to McCarrick allegations be enough?

Cardinal Sean OMalley Credit Bohumil Petrik CNA Cardinal Sean O'Malley. | Bohumil Petrik/CNA

Cardinal Séan O'Malley of Boston released a statement Tuesday in response to the unfolding allegations concerning Cardinal McCarrick.

The statement said the Church needs to respond with "more than apologies" to sexual misconduct cases. It identified a "major gap" in Church procedures for handling accusations against bishops, and made suggestions for addressing that gap.

Cardinal O'Malley enjoys a reputation for being a "zero-tolerance" bishop on matters of sexual abuse, and he is widely perceived to be the Church's most credible voice on the subject. Given his stature, especially on matters of sexual abuse, many Catholics were eager for his response to the McCarrick scandal.

Interventions by Cardinal O'Malley have become the sober punctuation marks to major abuse stories. His public response to Pope Francis' dismissal of victims following the papal visit to Chile was widely praised as a brave intervention, one which caused the pope to dramatically reassess the situation in that country.

Widely credited with successfully reforming dioceses plagued by abuse scandals, first in Palm Beach and most famously in Boston, he was seen as a natural choice to lead the newly-established Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in 2014. He also serves on the C9 Council of Cardinals, Pope Francis' advisory committee, tasked with helping the pope to review the governing structure of the Church.

O'Malley's statement yesterday was typical of his approach to sensitive issues – measured, focused, and thoughtful.

"Transparent and consistent protocols are needed to provide justice for the victims and to adequately respond to the legitimate indignation of the community," he wrote.

"The Church needs a strong and comprehensive policy to address bishops' violations of the vows of celibacy in cases of the criminal abuse of minors and in cases involving adults."

If his diagnosis of the problem is instinctive, Cardinal O'Malley's prescription is equally straightforward.

"Three specific actions are required at this time. First, a fair and rapid adjudication of these accusations; second, an assessment of the adequacy of our standards and policies in the Church at every level, and especially in the case of bishops; and third, communicating more clearly to the Catholic faithful and to all victims the process for reporting allegations against bishops and cardinals."

In short, Cardinal O'Malley proposed that in the future, allegations against bishops need to be handled as a matter of highest priority; that a new, purpose built, system be put in place to handle complaints against bishops; and that these necessary reforms be clearly announced, so there can be no doubt about how such cases should be handled in the future.

It is a simple, clear, and practical proposal.

But it is not a new proposal. And it is not immediately clear what new procedures the cardinal has in mind, especially because in recent years the Holy See has announced and developed the kinds of procedural reforms O'Malley seems to be calling for, and he had a hand in some of them.

For years, canon law has provided for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to receive accusations of sexual abuse against a bishop and to put them on trial. Such trials do happen, albeit very rarely, and Pope Francis has made several announcements and changes designed to strengthen those procedures.

In June 2015 the pope announced his intention to create a new tribunal within the CDF, specifically to conduct trials of bishops accused of negligence in relation to sexual abuse allegations.

That announcement actually followed a proposal submitted to Francis by Cardinal O'Malley in his role as President of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors – itself a creation of structural reforms undertaken by the pope.

In June 2016, Pope Francis issued the motu proprio letter Come una madre amorevole. This legal document referenced the existing canon law provisions for the removal of a bishop from office for "grave reasons" while fleshing out what those grave reasons could be.

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It also outlined a new legal mechanism for assessing and trying accusations made against bishops, especially when charges involved negligence in cases of sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable adults.

While it did not create the CDF tribunal promised in 2015, Come una madre laid out a usable legal framework which, together with existing canon law, would allow Vatican authorities to receive allegations against bishops, convene a legal process, and submit a finding and recommendation for removal to the pope.

Two years later, and despite several high-profile situations that seem to many to meet the process' criteria, it has yet to be used.

In short, if one thing has not been lacking in the Church's response to allegations against bishops it is the creation of new structures and procedures.

Perhaps O'Malley has in mind the specific mention of bishops in the USCCB's policies governing sexual abuse allegations, or adding to those policies new sections dealing specifically with bishops. It is also possible that he means identifying a clear point-person in the United States who could receive complaints about bishops, and act on them.

Those ideas could be useful. But, like all legal processes in the Church, deployment of good policies depends upon the decisions of diocesan bishops, Vatican officials, and the pope.  

Many canonists, who have watched the emergence of new processes and systems in recent years, note that persons, not institutions, must be the ones to make the law actually work.

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Amid the maelstrom surrounding Chile's recent sexual abuse crisis, Pope Francis acknowledged his direct responsibility for failings in the way the matter had been handled, offering an apology for his  "serious mistakes."

Later, writing to Chile's bishops, he lamented "one of our main faults and omissions: not knowing how to listen to victims." He included himself among those who had not listened, and promised to do better.

"I was part of the problem" he said directly to victims of abuse, while meeting with them in the Vatican this May.

Leaving aside still-unanswered questions about how, exactly, the pope was a part of the problem, Francis set a template for bishops to follow as they interacted with victims-- one that many noted was personal, direct, and humble.  

Many Catholics in the U.S. are now looking for the same from their bishops, for a recognition that beyond institutional failures, there were personal faults that allowed McCarrick to continue in ministry amid decades of complaints.

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.

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