Pope Francis’ most senior adviser on child protection has called on the Church to move “swiftly and decisively” to adopt new policies for bishops and cardinals accused of sexual abuse and misconduct.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, the president of a papal commission on protection of minors, made his appeal following the levelling of abuse allegations against Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
Cardinal O’Malley, one of the most credible voices among the Catholic hierarchy on battling abuse, said “a major gap still exists” when charges are brought against a bishop or a cardinal and unless action is taken further damage will be inflicted on the “already weakened moral authority of the Church”.
A former Archbishop of Washington, who in retirement continued to play an active role in the global Church, Cardinal McCarrick has been removed from public ministry after an allegation that he fondled a teenager over 40 years ago in New York City was found to be credible.
The decision to remove the 88-year-old cardinal from ministry was taken “at the direction of Pope Francis” after the Vatican was presented with the findings of a US review board for assessing the credibility of abuse allegations. The cardinal denied the initial allegation and maintains his innocence.
Last week the New York Times reported new abuse claims against the cardinal: this time that he had molested a child, aged 11, in what became a sexually abusive relationship which would continue for 20 years. Separately, a number of men have come forward to say McCarrick made unwanted sexual advances to them in a beach house in New Jersey when they were adult seminarians studying for the priesthood. The cardinal has not commented on these claims.
The news about Cardinal McCarrick’s alleged abuse of children has sent shockwaves through the US Church although there had long been rumours of his sexual misconduct with adult seminarians. While in two cases this resulted in settlements it did not prevent his rise to the highest ranks of ecclesial authority.
With access to presidents and Popes, Cardinal McCarrick was a major power broker in Church circles during the pontificate of St John Paul II and Benedict XVI while Francis asked him to work behind the scenes on helping to re-establish diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba.
He also held board membership of a large number of Vatican departments, and attended the meetings in the lead up to the 2013 conclave as a retired cardinal. Even after retirement he kept up a demanding work schedule involving regular travel across the world.
But in his statement, Cardinal O’Malley stressed that regardless of rank, reputation or status there must be “clearer procedures for cases involving bishops” which he said must be transparent, consistent and “provide justice for the victims.”
While the Church in the United States and the west have robust protocols for handling priests accused of abuse, accusations involving cardinals and bishops normally require the involvement of the Holy See. In the case of Cardinal McCarrick, the Pope accepted the recommendation of the New York review board.
In 2015, Francis announced the establishment of a tribunal to judge bishops involved in sex abuse cover-ups, but it never materialised due to bureaucratic and legal problems.
There is, however, the possibility of bringing internal Church court proceedings - known as a canonical trial - against Cardinal McCarrick, although introducing accountability norms for bishops and cardinals remains fraught with difficulty.
Cardinal O’Malley is calling for a “fair and rapid adjudication” of the Cardinal McCarrick accusations along with a full review of child protection protocols with a focus on bishops and communicating to lay Catholics how such allegations against cardinals and bishops are handled.
“Failure to take these actions will threaten and endanger the already weakened moral authority of the Church and can destroy the trust required for the Church to minister to Catholics and have a meaningful role in the wider civil society,” Cardinal O’Malley said. "In this moment there is no greater imperative for the Church than to hold itself accountable to address these matters, which I will bring to my upcoming meetings with the Holy See with great urgency and concern."