Sean O’Malley entered the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin in 1965 and was ordained in 1970. Following his ordination, he earned a master’s degree in religious education and a doctorate in Spanish and Portuguese literature, both from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he also taught from 1969 to 1973. He then served as executive director of the Centro Catolico Hispano in the Archdiocese of Washington until 1978, when he was appointed episcopal vicar for the Hispanic, Portuguese and Haitian communities.
Boston is the fourth diocese to be headed by Archbishop O’Malley, who became coadjutor bishop of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1984 and head of the diocese less than a year later. In 1992 Pope John Paul II named Sean O’Malley bishop of Fall River, Mass., where he said that his top priority would be handling the case of the former priest James R. Porter, accused of molesting dozens of young boys and girls while a diocesan priest in Fall River in the 1960’s. Two months after his arrival, the new bishop issued a strong draft of a proposed sexual abuse policy, and later that year reached a financial settlement with 68 persons who alleged Porter had abused them.
In 2002, when Bishop O’Malley was appointed diocesan bishop of Palm Beach, Fla., he succeeded Bishop Anthony J. O’Connell, who had faced allegations of sexual misconduct from years earlier and had acknowledged abusing a high school seminarian in Missouri. O’Connell himself succeeded Bishop J. Keith Symons, who resigned in 1998 after admitting that he had sexually abused several altar boys.
In his homily at the installation Mass in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston, Mass., on July 30, 2003, the archbishop offered words of welcome to the local Spanish, Portuguese and Haitian Creole communities in their native languages. In addition to these languages and English, Archbishop O’Malley speaks French, Italian and German.
Before your appointment as archbishop of Boston, you served in two dioceses hit especially hard by instances of clerical sexual abuse. In the homily at your installation Mass in July you spoke of the desire to beg forgiveness from the victims of sexual abuse and their families. What would you say are the most important things the American bishops might do after seeking forgiveness?
Well, certainly making sure that our parishes, schools and agencies are truly safe places for children and for young people. I think we’ve come a long way toward doing that with the Charter for the Protection of Children. The Act of Contrition contains a firm purpose of amendment. So we need to show people that we are moving forward and that we are not going to commit the same blunders that we have in the past.
When we think about firm purpose of amendment, we also think about the traditional model of reconciliationconfession, forgiveness and penance. Many of the bishops have already admitted their failings and have asked for forgiveness. I was wondering what you thought about penance, whether that has a place anywhere in the reconciliation process that the church is undergoing.
I think it does, and there have been different attempts at it. Certainly days of prayer and different penance services have taken place around the country. When I was in Fall River, we had a novena of prayer and reparation before the feast of Pentecost. And I know that here in the Archdiocese of Boston, Bishop Richard Lennon went around to the different regions, and they had penance services where they invited victims to come and speak. I understand that they were very well received and did help people to have a sense of reconciliation and healing.
Many explanations for the crisis have been proposed from different quarters in the church. Some ascribe it to dissentthat bishops and priests were not taking church teaching seriously enoughothers to the arrogance of some bishops, others to the lack of lay involvement, others to celibacy, others to gays in the clergy. What do you think were the causes?
Most of the incidents took place during a time of great turmoil. We moved from the pre-Vatican II church into a new world, and the turmoil existed not just in the church but in society. Growing up, we never heard of priests leaving ministry or a religious leaving religious life. Then, in those days after the council, priests and religious were leaving in droves. So many changes were taking place in such a short period of time. There was the Vietnam War, the drug culture and the sexual revolution. We were being hit by so many thingsthe assassination of the president, of Martin Luther King Jr., of Bobby Kennedy. All of these things took a toll on the life of the community at large. When things were more placid and tranquil, there were more supports for religious life, for asceticism, for virtue. And all of those supports were taken away. So some people started to act out at that point.
Now some of them were true pedophiles and very compulsive in their behavior. For other people, I think, it was more weakness and, sometimes, drinking. And some of those people, I believe, were able to turn their lives around at some point. Unfortunately, people in those days did not understand how profound the damage was that was done to the victims of sexual abuse. If they had, I think there would have been greater vigilance, a greater response; but people looked upon it as a moral problem, as in Well, go deal with the priest, and straighten him out. Something like taking the cure for drinking too much. The victim was sort of left out of it. And of course there was the great fear of scandal.
But this was not the mentality only of the church. Sometimes these priests would be picked up by the police in compromising situations, but instead of being arrested they would be driven to their rectories and deposited there. In Fall River, during the Porter years, every time someone reported James Porter for sexually abusing a child, the bishop would immediately remove Porter from a parish and send him to a treatment center. Then he would get a glowing bill of health that would say, Father can now be returned. And he would naïvely place him in a parish again, and Porter would again abuse children. So I think that was a factor as well.
In other words, there was a lack of understanding at the time about the severity of the sickness?
That’s right. And that was coupled with the inability to foresee the profound, lifelong damage that can be done to the victims of child abuse. They would concentrate on the perpetrators and say, Well, the child will be all right; it’s not a sin for the child. But we see how some people’s lives have been permanently damaged by an early experience of abuse and by the fact that it was a priest, which made an even greater impact on the life of the child.
Along those lines, how do you respond personally to the anger expressed by victims and by many Catholic lay men and women?
I understand it. I hope that they will be able to get over that anger. But I certainly understand it. It is a very human reaction to the situation.
What do you hope to do for the priests in your archdiocese and, more broadly, what do you think can be done to encourage priests nationwide?
The problems here are very, very great, and priests have suffered very much. This has been Ground Zero. We have such a backlog of cases that need to be dealt with. At one end of the spectrum, we try to do that. At the other end of the spectrum, we try to bring priests together to minister to one another. I think that is essential.
In what ways have you found that accomplished most effectively?
In my experience, groups like the Emmaus and Iesus Caritas groups and others like them have been very good for priests. Because then it’s not just coming together for recreation, it’s coming together to pray, to talk about our vocations, to talk about what’s happening in our life and in our ministry and to support one another.
What do you tell Catholics who are tempted to leave or otherwise give up on the church?
I tell them not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. As I have said many times, this is a very sad chapter in the history of the church, but it’s not the whole book. So we want people to look beyond this and realize that there are many wonderful things about the church. Here in Boston I am very impressed by the enthusiasm and love I see in the parishes. So certainly people are hurt and disappointedI understand that. We are all acutely aware of the human side of the church, but we have to remember that Christ is with the church, and Christ is the bridegroom, not the widower; he doesn’t exist separate from the church. We live in a society that has become so individualistic that the temptation is to retreat into a New Age type of spirituality. But Jesus came to found a people of the church. Again, that’s part of God’s will for us; it means being connected to one another in the church and in that connectedness being connected to Christ.
How have your Franciscan roots contributed to your ministry as bishop, and how has your Franciscan spirituality influenced your handling of these crises?
I am not sure. I suppose part of it is the ideal of striving, like Francis, to be a universal brother. Also to see reconciliation as an important sign of the presence of Christ in the church. I don’t claim to have done those things well, but they’re aspirations in my life that are gnawing away at me as I am trying to be a bishop.
Where have you found God in the past few years as you dealt with these situations?
Well, it has made me pray much harder. I think it’s caused me and, I am sure, other people to look for the essentials and see that we need to refocus on Christ and our mission. So much of what seemed to occupy all of our attention was not as important as we thought.
And how has that changed your approach day to day, as you try to refocus on the essentials?
I think it has made me more faithful to my interior life. I told that to the priests here when I, still in panic, first met with them, after I received news that I was coming to Boston. In the breviary in those days there was that wonderful reading from St. John Vianney, where he tells us that two things are essential: to pray and to love. So that’s what I want to do better.