Boston: Ten Years Later

Earlier this week, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, OFM Cap, issued a letter to the people of the Archdiocese of Boston marking the tenth anniversary of the revelations of clergy sex abuse in The Boston Globe. The letter, and an accompanying document about the steps taken by the archdiocese to face the scandal, is remarkable in every way.

Ten years ago, the bishops failed to understand that the scandal was not only, or even primarily, about the underlying crimes pedophilia, but about the failure of the hierarchy to confront those crimes and the weasel words they used to explain their actions. In the spring of 2002, New York’s Cardinal Edward Egan wrote in a letter read at Masses: “If in hindsight we also discover that mistakes may have been made as regards prompt removal of priests and assistance to victims, I am deeply sorry.” That is not the voice of moral responsibility and, consequently, cannot be a voice of moral authority. Only a lawyer would find no problem in the distance set between the word “mistakes” and the pronoun “I” and the interjection of the word “if” is so tone deaf as to defy explanation.

Contrast that with the words in O’Malley’s letter. “As a Church we must continue to express the depth of our sorrow and contrition for how badly we failed those entrusted to our care. I reflect on this in my prayer every day. As leaders in the Church we must accept our responsibility for those failings and clearly acknowledge that Church leadership could have and should have responded more quickly and more forcefully.”

Ten years ago, anyone who raised the issue of clergy sex abuse was seen as an enemy of the Church. Cardinal Law famously denounced the Boston Globe for doing its job. Aspersions were cast against the trial lawyers who defended the victims of clergy sex abuse. And, of course, most famously, prominent neo-con Catholics like George Weigel and Mary Ann Glendon were busy defending their pal Father Maciel from charges of abuse. Father Richard John Neuhaus wrote of the reporters who broke the story of Maciel’s depradations:

It is not the kind of stuff you would find in any mainstream media, but then [Jason] Berry and [Gerald] Renner are not practitioners of what is ordinarily meant by responsible journalism. Berry's business is Catholic scandal and sensationalism. That is what he does. Renner's tour at the Courant was marked by an animus against things Catholic, an animus by no means limited to the Legion...
Of course, no enemies of the Church ever caused her so much harm as that inflicted by the likes of Father Maciel.

Compare the scapegoating then with Cardinal O’Malley’s words now. After commending the efforts of those who have worked to erect child protection programs in the archdiocese, he writes, “In particular, these efforts have been greatly aided by the men and women of our community who responded with fortitude, determination and unfailing resolve. They rightfully made clear in the earliest days of the crisis that nothing short of complete and total protection for children would be acceptable if we were to move forward together.”

Cardinal O’Malley also states that “Our commitment to uphold the moral standard of the Church and the civil statutes in all matters concerning child safety is absolute. There is no place for compromise or equivocation concerning the welfare of children and young people.” Sadly, courtrooms in Philadelphia and Kansas City will soon be the settings for ample testimony about how such equivocation and compromise still exists in certain ecclesiastical precincts.

Those court cases are not the only things that remind us all that the scandal, the crisis, is far from behind us. O’Malley concludes his letter by offering a related document “for you review and consideration. They are not and are not intended to be a final word or the closing of a chapter. There will never be a time to presume that the crisis is over or behind us. The reflections are presented as a marker on a path that will be traveled by every day of our lives and the lives of those who will follow us, a path of healing, rebuilding trust, and renewing ourselves in the presence of the Lord.”

Here, the Cardinal has come full circle because the “Reflections” document to which he points begins “I. The Survivors.” If twenty years ago and thirty years ago, the bishops had listened less to their lawyers and more to the survivors of clergy sex abuse, they would not have made the horrendous mistakes they made. If they had worried more about the scars of the children and less about the reputations of the priests, they would have cut out the cancer sooner. If they had acted more like pastors and less like CEOs, the bishops would not have brought this scandal on themselves and on the Church. Having avoided the search for scapegoats, having acknowledged the failure of the leaders of the Church, O’Malley re-focuses the Church’s attention on where it should have been in the first place: the survivors.

I do not know many people, ordained or not, who radiate both the holiness and the humility that Cardinal O’Malley radiates. I do not know if there is a bishop in America who could have gone into the epicenter of the crisis in Boston and turned things around as he has turned things around. I do know this: In the darkest hour in the history of the U.S. Church, O’Malley has become the model for how to begin the healing. That dark hour is not done. Indeed, as O’Malley indicates, it is never our place to presume it will be done. And, there will be further sins and scandals afflicting the Church of the future. But, here, in this letter, and in his nearly ten years of ministry in Boston, we see in Cardinal Sean the face of a good shepherd because he reveals the face of the Good Shepherd.

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