If you were a student in a first-year Communications class, and you were asked to devise a strategy for taking a situation, say a scandal involving the clerical abuse of minors, and make the situation worse, to devise ways to add fuel to the flames rather than to squelch them, to present yourself as aloof and indifferent, and to enervate your most devoted supporters, you might have drafted a proposal that looks like what the Vatican did this past week. But, you would probably be laughed out of the room for being too ridiculous. No one could get it that wrong.
In my posts, I have pointed to the fact that in the initial New York Times article, there was ample evidence of bad judgment on the part of the authorities in Milwaukee but precious little about the Vatican and then-Cardinal Ratzinger. I have seconded the argument, but forth not only by seasoned Vaticanologists like John Allen at NCR but by Cardinal Schoenborn of Vienna and Archbishop Wuerl of Washington, that as the Vatican began to grapple with this scandal, it was then-Cardinal Ratzinger who consistently and forcefully argued for a more robust response, who counseled in favor of investigations to discover the truth of the allegations, but who was often frustrated by other Vatican officials. I have noted that since the implementation of the Dallas norms, a Catholic school or church in the United States is about the safest place for a child to be.
I fault the media for failing to recognize the extraordinary beauty of the Pope’s homilies this week, concentrating only on the line, or lack of a line, about the sex abuse crisis, as if the salvation of humanity by the death and resurrection of Christ was unimportant compared with the fact that then-Cardinal Ratzinger was cc’d on a memo. But, now it is time to fault the Vatican for failing to understand a basic fact of modern life: Until they confront the crisis and respond directly to the criticisms raised, they will not be heard. They cannot effectively preach the Good News until they deal with the news cycle. I wish it were different, but then again, I am sure Paul wished his reception had been different at the Areopagus. It is time to call in the cavalry if the Church is to have its preachings about Calvary heard.
In this case, the cavalry is Cardinal Sean O’Malley. In 1992, the Porter case in Fall River was one of the first intimations of how grotesque the sexual abuse of minors by clergy could be, and how devastating to the life of the local church. Bishop O’Malley was sent to Fall River to get to the bottom of the case and to restore the faith of his flock. It seemed only natural, therefore, that when the Bishop of Palm Beach, Florida resigned after it was credibly charged that he had abused children, not just covered up the abuse, O’Malley was sent to rekindle the faith of the people there. The next year, after the first-ever forced resignation by an American cardinal, with the church in Boston literally coming apart at the seams, the Vatican again turned to O’Malley to turn things around.
Today, the church in Boston is not in meltdown. Today, the Boston church has turned around. Contributions to the annual archdiocesan appeal are back to their pre-crisis levels. Vocations are up. The morale of the clergy has been restored and priests are no longer afraid to walk down the street wearing their clerical collars. O’Malley has emerged as the face of the Church with even more authority than any of his predecessors because he has earned his moral authority by holding countless meetings with victims, by never using weasel words or the passive voice ("mistakes were made") to describe the cover-up of the abuse, and by never failing to apologize again and again to the victims whenever the subject comes up.
In the run-up to Pope Benedict’s trip to the United States in 2008, there were Church officials on both side of the Atlantic who thought the Pope should be spared a meeting with the victims of clergy sexual abuse. They did not want to put him through the emotion of such a meeting and they worried that such a meeting would drown out all of the Pope’s other appearances. It was Cardinal O’Malley who went to Rome and met with the Pope and told him the truth: If he did not meet with the victims, the trip would be seen by many as a disaster and that only by addressing the issue head-on could the pope hope to get heard on other issues. O’Malley was right.
If the Pope wants to get past this crisis, he should call O’Malley to Rome and appoint him the head of a small commission. (I would include Dublin’s Archbishop Martin who, like O’Malley, has maintained his moral standing because of his willingness to speak the truth.) The commission should recommend steps the Vatican can take to address the issue, such as extending the "zero tolerance" norms of the U.S. Church to the universal Church and calling for screening of and training for all Church personnel who will be working with children. Most importantly, the Vatican needs to hear from Cardinal O’Malley what they need to do and say to reclaim their moral voice. They need to listen to him explain how to address the legitimate issues and questions raised by victims and by the press, at the same time separating the wheat from the chaff and isolating the irresponsible press. They need to hear from O’Malley how he turned around the archdiocese that was in the worst situation because of this scandal and how those lessons can help the Vatican respond better than it has so far. Send in the cavalry. Send in O’Malley.