US visitor well versed in church abuse issue


The apostolic visit to Dublin could lead to mutual learning between Boston’s cardinal and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, writes KEVIN CULLEN

A PRIEST who works for Cardinal Seán O’Malley chuckled the other day when asked how he thought Boston’s archbishop will do when he arrives in Dublin for an apostolic visit.

“After seven years in Boston,” the priest said, “seven days in Dublin will be a relief.”

O’Malley has weathered the biggest challenge in any American archdiocese, emerging as the Vatican’s go-to American bishop when it comes to cleaning up the mess left by clerical sexual abuse.

Before Boston, he restored scandal-ravaged dioceses in Palm Beach, Florida, and Fall River, Massachusetts.

O’Malley’s tenure in Boston has been marked by a slow but inexorable improvement of the archdiocese’s finances and social standing, even as he’s been forced to close nearly 100 parishes and schools.

Now he will help Archbishop Diarmuid Martin figure out the best road back for the Dublin archdiocese.

From William O’Connell to Richard Cushing to Bernard Law, three of O’Malley’s four predecessors in Boston have used their Irish ancestry and political instincts to their advantage in the most Irish, and Catholic, metropolitan area in America.

O’Malley is a far more reserved, pious figure, more like Humberto Medeiros, the only Boston archbishop in the last century who wasn’t Irish-American. But O’Malley’s political instincts have grown on the job.

There was a moving moment when Ted Kennedy’s casket was wheeled into the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help last September.

O’Malley met the casket at the door, and while it was meant to symbolise the arrival of Senator Kennedy at his funeral Mass, it was in some ways the day that Seán Patrick O’Malley really arrived as archbishop of Boston.

O’Malley and Kennedy differed bitterly on abortion rights, and O’Malley knew that by presiding over Kennedy’s funeral he would invite the wrath of those for whom abortion is the only litmus test of being a good Catholic.

But he praised Kennedy’s commitment to the poor and vulnerable, reminding people the church’s commitment is the same.

His gesture led many Boston Catholics who thought him as something of a remote, dour fixer to reassess him.

O’Malley has spoken fondly from the pulpit about childhood visits to relatives in Mayo. He remembers seeing two photos above the hearth: one of the pope, the other of president John F Kennedy.

O’Malley’s predecessor, Cardinal Law, failed not just because of his poor handling of the sexual abuse crisis.

Law failed to heed the advice the poet Robert Frost had given Jack Kennedy at his inauguration in 1960.

“Be more Irish than Harvard,” Frost said.

Law, a Harvard man tending to the most Irish of American flocks, got it backwards. Many ordinary Catholics found him aloof.

And when he needed to be more Harvard than Irish, administering a sprawling bureaucracy, he got it backwards again.

O’Malley inherited an archdiocese that was reeling, spiritually and financially.

He had to spend so much time being a chief executive, settling lawsuits, closing parishes, shutting down schools, that it was sometimes difficult to see that, despite his vaunted position, O’Malley is at his essence what one of his predecessors, Cardinal Cushing, longed to be when responsibilities seemed overwhelming: a simple priest.

Fundraising has rebounded under O’Malley, a Capuchin who wears sandals and takes his vow of poverty seriously.

He sold off the Italianate mansion that O’Connell built, using the proceeds to pay victims of sexual abuse.

The survivor community is divided on O’Malley. He got high marks from many victims who were furious over Cardinal Law’s cold, legalistic approach.

O’Malley has been much more pastoral to victims. But as the years have gone by, some victims suggest O’Malley is simply a more humble version of Law who says the right things but sees his first obligation as allegiance to the Vatican, not solidarity with victims.

“Cardinal O’Malley has the demeanour of a healer and the skills of a concealer,” said Anne Barrett Doyle from, a group that monitors the hierarchy’s response to the abuse crisis.

O’Malley is one of the few American bishops committed to releasing the names of priests accused of abuse. He has pledged to release the names of Boston priests so accused by the end of the year.

Connecticut lawyer Helen McGonigle, an American victim of the late Brendan Smyth, says she hopes O’Malley’s visitation to Dublin is a mutually beneficial affair. McGonigle says survivors have been heartened by Archbishop Martin’s aggressive stance and refusal to defend complicit bishops.

She hopes Martin can persuade O’Malley to support the resignation of complicit bishops. Cardinal Law is the only American bishop forced to resign for enabling, as opposed to committing, abuse.

“There’s an opportunity for them to influence each other for the better,” said McGonigle, who believes Cardinal Seán Brady should also resign, because he failed to turn Smyth over to police in the 1970s. “Irish bishops have been forced to resign. We need the same to happen in America.”

Kevin Cullen is a columnist with the Boston Globenewspaper